In the wake of Claire Vaye Watkins’s “On Pandering,” there were many responses; notably, critiques of the essay’s failure to address the author’s white privilege. But no one addressed class privilege in the essay, which begins with a slam on rural Pennsylvania, a poor place Watkins says smells like pigshit, and which she described “to faraway friends [as] murdersome.” Watkins was in Appalachia for an academic job, which she left.
She was a tourist in what she calls “coal-Amish-fracking country.” I live there.
I’m a solo mother living with my son on a ridge in the foothills of Appalachian Ohio, where a fracking injection well a few miles away is maybe/probably to blame for my occupational asthma; where, for dinner, I defrost deer shot by a neighbor; where I can’t remember the last time I bought clothing not from Goodwill. We burn our trash here. We fix our cars with beer cans and hose. My black work boots I’ve worn since I was thirteen. I didn’t go to the dentist for seven years.
My grandfather finished the eighth grade. My parents, college (the first in both families to do so), and I made it through graduate school. But I pursued writing. And while the road to being a writer has been paved for me—as for Watkins, as for every woman I know—with sexism and harassment, it’s also land-mined with class barriers.
Art is not the class I was born into. It’s not only that writing doesn’t pay well; it costs a lot of money for the privilege of not being paid, even for the consideration of not being paid. It’s not simply that paying magazines’ submission fees is a luxury for me and for many others, but that being an unpaid intern—a funnel toward publication or an editorial position—is a pipedream when you’re juggling which of the bills to pay this month, wondering if water is more important than heat.
Writing connections are often class connections. It costs money to attend writers’ conferences, including job conferences, or to “take time off” from a job to attend a residency. These experiences have become important for a writing life, both for the competence they lend to resumes and for networking, which can lead to publication.
Art is not the class that most of the writers I grew up loving were born into, either. Not James Wright, son of a worker at Atlas Glass and a homemaker. Not Octavia E. Butler, daughter of widowed mother who worked as a maid.
But literary writing has become tangled with a higher class: academia. Watkins was an assistant professor at Bucknell University, adjacent to the “coal country town” which “On Pandering” disparages, and located in the small, privileged college town of Lewisburg, which her essay contrasts as “actually quite pleasant.” Though her essay acknowledges the vast class differences between the adjoining places, it presents no possible solutions to the poverty just outside the academic bubble, but only a mockery of it, including a joke about a nearby coal seam fire. Mine fires, caused by smoldering coal, are environmental disasters. They can burn for years, posing serious health hazards to people in already-exploited places—people who can’t afford, like Watkins did, to just leave.
But the coal disaster in Centralia, Pennsylvania, is presented in “On Pandering” as a joke: “That vein, by the way, is expected to continue burning for another 250 years. So if you haven’t visited Centralia, there’s still time.” The poverty of others is distasteful, something to laugh at. And then to run from.
Watkins now is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan. Indeed, if you look at the contributors’ notes of many leading journals or the finalist bios of prizes, you might believe that professors are the only ones who write anymore.
Teaching at the college level was traditionally a good job, if you could get it. But most of us can’t. Most creative writers in the academy now end up as adjuncts, not making ends meet (or having job security or insurance); not having the time, energy, or physical stamina to do their own work, while teaching four or more sections of English Composition a semester (that translates into grading, on average, about 300 drafts).
That was me, for a while. Then I was offered a section, and when I asked how much it paid—because I have to pay a babysitter for my young son—I was only told by the (male, white) department head: “We have adjuncts who will do it at any price.”
As disgusting as this statement is, it’s true. And it means that only writers with working spouses or families who support them, or who have independent wealth, can teach. And that most college English departments—we’ve long known this, but don’t seem capable or willing to do anything about it—run on exploitation.
So I work several jobs now. I work for a website for solo moms, I freelance write and report, I copyedit and tutor, and I have a lead on extra work selling corn chips at supermarkets on weekends. And while I love teaching writing and believe I could have made a difference in academia, and a better life for my son there, I also believe that contemporary literature’s heavy focus on the professor class is a detriment not only to writers’ lives but also to the work being produced.
It reinforces the damaging message that the only lives worth writing (or reading) about are the ones professors lead.
I think of Herbert Scott and his book Groceries, about working in a grocery store. I think of Kathy Fagan handing hot dogs out of a drive-up window. I think of Tyehimba Jess teaching high school. I think of David Dodd Lee on the night shift in a hospital storeroom. While these writers, like Wright and others, made the leap to academia, they certainly didn’t start there, and their work has a deepness of experience and empathy that is missing from the work of the privileged.
Making art is more than a leisure activity exclusively for the well-off. For some, including the poor, it’s a calling that cannot be denied. There is no stronger motivation than that. There is no brighter fire.
There are other voices beyond professors. Other kinds of lives, other struggles that are real, vividly imagined, and deserving of time. One of the ways of validating lives is by allowing them space to speak, by setting up your conference or your contest in a way that supports writers who are poor and less connected, in a way that actively looks for them.
This means no submission fees. This means paying your interns—and your writers. This means shorter residencies for writers who will be fired from their jobs if they leave for long, or who have children without nannies. This means searching for writers to celebrate beyond New York and outside of academia. This means putting up flyers for your journal and posters advertising your readings not just at the hipster coffeehouse and AWP elevator, but at community colleges and laundromats, at halfway houses and homeless shelters. This means recognizing that not everyone—including every writer—has internet at home, not everyone has a working printer, not everyone can apply for a grant early or at all, not everyone has an hour of free time, not everyone can write when they are not bone tired or hungry or cold.
While some progress has been made with regard to working for—or at least acknowledging the dire need for—gender and racial diversity in literature, thanks to the work of groups like VIDA and We Need Diverse Books, nothing has been done to champion class diversity in writing.
Why is it still okay, as “On Pandering” did, to make fun of the poor? Why is it still okay to forget them? And what voices are we losing out on when there is an entry fee to even being heard?
I think of Nora Piece working as a custodian, among many other jobs. I think of Donald Ray Pollock at the Mead Paper Mill. I think of Jane Hamilton farming in an apple orchard. And I think of Christina Baker-Jones.
You probably haven’t heard of Christina Baker-Jones (yet), because she worked three jobs at the same time: as a student worker during the day, at McDonald’s at night, and crushing boxes in Wal-Mart layaway department until well after dawn. You will hear of her, because her stories are sharp and aching, and because her drive is strong. She married a former co-worker at McDonald’s, went back to college in her early thirties—and graduated. That kind of spirit cannot be silenced. That kind of voice doesn’t pander. It prevails.
And I have to tell you: the smell of manure that “On Pandering” mocks? It comforts me. It reminds me of home. Of farmers, like my family. Once someone tried to insult my uncle by calling him a “dirt farmer.” But those are the people I come from.
Sometimes we can be activists. We can burn things. We can shout—and call out. Sometimes, for safety reasons, for not-starving reasons, for not-wanting-to-be-fired reasons, for not-wanting-to-be-abused-again reasons we cannot. I am scared about the ramifications of voicing this.
But as a poor white woman with an invisible disability (deafness), I have enormous privilege. It is much more difficult to be a writer of color, a writer with a visible disability, a trans writer. Those paths are not only land-mined, they are actively blocked, the bridges dynamited out, the directions sabotaged.
Though I am embarrassed and afraid, sliding into the rural poverty my parents worked hard to escape, I have family not far away who help out with my son when they can, and my county, though the poorest in the state, is supportive of those who are struggling. So every time I read a mischaracterization of the poor written by professors, I cringe. Because that’s not how it’s like.
Unless you publish the voices of the poor, how will you know about the basket of fruit by the doors of the grocery, free for any child to eat? How will you know about the night when someone anonymously paid for the entire town to attend the movies? How will you know about shaking creosote from woodstoves? Or finding hen-of-the-woods? Or how the ground jerks when the coal mine is dynamited? Or how the mechanic gives away free tires? Or how to steep nettle tea, or how to collect it wild by the river in your arms?
The experiences and imaginations of the poor are as rich as those of anyone born into privilege or tenured as a professor. Sometimes, imagination is all we have.
We are poor because we were born that way. We are poor because our husbands or girlfriends left us, or our families disowned us, or our partners abused us. We are poor because we are raising children and children need things, like food. We are poor because of illness or disability. We are poor because the city where we live is expensive, but we don’t have the savings to leave. We are poor because we spent those savings on rent. We are poor because our rent was raised. We are poor because our fifteen-year-old car broke down again. We are poor because of student loans. We are poor because there are no jobs, or there are not enough jobs, or we’re working three jobs, but none pay a living wage.
We are not poor out of lack of hard work. We are not poor because we “want it less.” We stay poor because of institutionalized sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, and classism.
We stay poor because doors stay closed.