In our summer fiction supplement, DJ Taylor argues that angry voices of discontent rarely make it into the mainstream, while in a short story Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen follows an African-American ex-soldier who is grappling with demonsby Sameer Rahim / July 20, 2017 / Leave a comment
Not long ago, I got chatting to a friend who teaches English literature in the United States. We were trying to work out if there were any living American authors who have never been involved with a creative writing school—either as student or teacher. We came up with Tom Wolfe. (Any others let me know.) We’re not at that level of saturation here, but we’re not far off. And this is by no means a bad thing. Artists go to art school and musicians to music college: writing is a craft that can be taught.
But while the quality of novel-writing might have increased due to these courses, their cost means they inevitably exclude the more marginalised. As the critic DJ Taylor argues in his essay “Look back on anger,” the “disabling effects of this institutionalising” has meant that other, angrier, voices of discontent rarely break into the mainstream. In the wake of disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington, which laid bare the stark inequality in our country, this is all the more concerning.
Leaving aside the middle-class writer conjuring the working-class grotesque (see Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo), you can usually count the number of novels about working-class people published each year on two hands. The last one to win the Booker was Scottish author James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late, in 1994—and even that was controversial because of its profanity. More recently, you could point to two novels about football culture, Anthony Cartwright’s Iron Towns and Ross Raisin’s A Natural. But not much else.
This is strange since many of our greatest writers have been interested in the lives of the underprivileged: Dickens, of course, but also George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, whose portrayals of the rural poor are more acute than they are often given credit for.
In non-fiction, Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851) was a fascinating compendium of those left behind in a booming metropolis. The modern equivalents of Mayhew’s work, such as Ben Judah’s This is London, extracted in Prospect last year, tend to focus on immigrants. Such attention is welcome, but there is space for broader investigation.
Our short story is by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen. “The Americans” follows an ageing African-American ex-soldier who fought in Vietnam grappling with his demons—and trying to reconnect with his daughter Claire, who resents him for his actions during the war. Nguyen, a Vietnamese child-refugee who has lived in the US since he was four years old, says that in writing a story whose protagonist was part of the army that destroyed his country, he wanted to “test the limits of my empathy.” It is a gripping read from a fine writer. And a model for authors who want to step outside their comfort zones.