Walter Benn Michaels: Bad Economy, Better Books

In 1987, the year Beloved appeared, the top tenth of the American population made about 38 percent of the nation’s income. (The bottom fifth made about 3.8 percent.) That top figure was substantially up from the relatively egalitarian numbers that prevailed from the end of World War II until the late 1970s, but that rise was nothing compared with the jump that has taken place since: In 2006, according to the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, the top tenth earned about half of all the money made in America, more even than in 1928, till then the highest figure of the century. The bottom quintile got 3.4 percent.

For Walter Benn Michaels, renowned literary theorist and author of The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, American literature has long suffered from a severe case of cultural short-sightedness, an affliction which he thinks may be remedied by our current economic distress.

In “Going Boom” (Bookforum: Feb./Mar., 2009) Michaels contends that the social problems we see confronted in our most celebrated novels of the last quarter-century all share a point of comonality in their refusal to acknowledge the perpetually widening income gap created by the free market. Moreover, he takes issue with the American tendency to re-examine the atrocities of our past in terms of ethnic identities, moral failures and speculative historical revisionism rather than confronting the social realities which have come by way of our very economic  foundations.

“What the neoliberal novel likes about cultural difference,” he writes, “is that it sentimentalizes social conflict, imagining that what people really want is respect for their otherness rather than  money for their mortgages.” And, while a large part of me is leaping to defend the Roths and Morrisons of our literary landscape, I’d be lying if I said he doesn’t have a point.

Since September. . . things have gotten so bad that not just poor people but relatively rich people—up till now, the beneficiaries of the boom—have begun to feel the pain. And disapproval of holocausts is getting serious competition from fear of poverty. Which is just what the vast majority—the victims of the boom—have been worrying about all along. So maybe it’s time to forget about the Holocaust for a while and focus on the free market instead, to stop congratulating ourselves on being against genocide and to start questioning what it means to be for free trade.

In the last three months, I’ve read the following contemporary American novels: The Tortilla Curtain (Boyle), Names on a Map (Saenz), What Is the What (Eggers), Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Foer), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Diaz), Lost in the City (Jones), Beloved (Morrison), The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Chabon) and I’m currently working through Lahiri’s The Namesake and Danticat’s The Dew Breaker.

That’s a lot of books, right? Theoretically, with each author’s individual background and vision so drastically varied from the next, this should make for a thematically diverse reading list. But while each novel has its own method and voice, its own unique textual universe executed with varying degrees of success, they are all  — every last one of them — essentially about the same thing: reconciling one’s ethnic identity in the American social scheme.

To substantiate Michaels’ claim even further, the following historical atrocities are all on display: 9/11, slavery, the Holocaust, the Vietnam war, the brutal reign of Trujillo, and the civil war in Sudan. Furthermore, the only two books which don’t apply their energies toward examining any big-time suffering from the past (The Tortilla Curtain and Lost in the City) are also the only two works which even attempt to talk about the mechanisms of class. They also happen to be two of my favorite texts on the list.

While it’s tempting to forge some causality here and say that these two books are superior to most others because of their attention — however muted by the theme of ethnic identity — to inequality in the American social strata, the truth is that they just happen to be the products of tremendously gifted writers. And, if pressed, I would have to say that Michael Chabon’s  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a staggering 700-page novel about the Holocaust and the comic book industry, trumps them all in terms of artistry and enjoyability.

Still, I think Michaels is on to something. While exploring the themes of identity and America’s brutal past does not, in my opinion, make a particular novel inherently worse than one which focuses instead on the economic discrepancies created by American hyper-Capitalism, it should cause us to stop and question its relevance in a world that is so drastically changing. But, if Michaels is right and our literature writ large  begins to follow suit with the American television series The Wire, “[a series] about the world neoliberalism has actually produced rather than the one our literature pretends it has,” then — even if we’re living in boxes, sustaining ourselves on twigs and berries — we just might be in for some damn good reading.

Jezy

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One response to “Walter Benn Michaels: Bad Economy, Better Books

  1. silenceinarchitecture

    Fantastic piece, Jezy.

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