Working-class literature is a bit of an oddity. Do we mean it’s any type of literature written by an author with a working-class background? Is it literature written about the working class? I believe it is both to some extent. For me, working-class literature is at its best when it doesn’t use members of the working-class as a foil for middle- or upper-class readers.
To celebrate the release of my debut, Enough to Lose (Wayne State University Press, 9/05/2023), a novel-in-stories about life in working-class, rural Michigan, I’ve compiled a list of books that helped me as I wrote. They show how the working class is beautiful, diverse, emotionally complex, flawed, honorable, dynamic, and worthy of attention from readers across the socioeconomic spectrum.
Whose Names Are Unknown
University of Oklahoma Press
Following an Oklahoman farmer family at the onset of the Dust Bowl, this novel covers the environmental and economic impact of the Great Depression and the personal traumas endured by workers as they migrate to California. Once there, the Dunne family soon falls into the trap of life in a company town, where work is fleeting and low-paying. The bosses get rich as laborers compete for lower and lower wages until desperation leads the father to help organize his fellow fruit pickers to strike. If this sounds a bit like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, that’s because Babb took dutiful notes of tent camp conditions and the lives of migrant farmers during her time working for the Farm Security Administration in the late 1930s—her supervisor gave these notes to Steinbeck without Babb’s knowledge. When dealing with working-class themes, many stories end with the workers struggling and then succeeding. However, as we’ve seen in recent years with numerous defeats toward labor rights, the story of working-class struggle is just as much about solidarity in defeat as it is about victory. In Enough to Lose, some stories find characters trapped in poverty, wondering who holds the keys, and how much freedom costs.
Bonnie Jo Campbell
W. W. Norton & Company
These short stories follow characters that the rest of the world tends to forget. The second half of the 20th century saw the US go full speed ahead into higher market values for shareholders and less real wages for workers. Factories closed, jobs dried up, and desperation took over. The characters of these stories felt these impacts immediately. Addiction, poverty, and desperation, all brought on by deindustrialization, highlight these stories. The opening story, “The Trespasser,” doesn’t shy away from socioeconomic ravages: a family comes to their vacation cottage to find it had been used as a cook house then abandoned by meth addicts. In “Bringing Belle Home,” alcoholic Thomssen argues with his drug-addict wife, Belle over the power of love and if it’s enough to keep them going. As a rural Michigan author myself, I’m drawn to Campbell’s ability to depict an easily forgotten aspect of working-class life, that of the rural individual unable to leave a place with less and less opportunities. This catch-22 leads to beautiful stories of resistance and survival, much like those in Enough to Lose.
Stone Butch Blues
Recently celebrating its 30th anniversary, Feinberg’s semi-autobiographical work of fiction is as important today as ever. In light of anti-LGBTQ legislation across the country and a summer filled with some of the largest worker strikes in recent history, this novel is not only an important and harrowing queer coming-of-age story, it is also a testament to the power of labor organization. The book follows protagonist Jess as they navigate sex, gender, community, and their working-class background. Throughout the novel, Jess fails to reconcile the intersections of their life until they get involved with labor organizing. They are pushed by an old coworker, who states, “you’re already wondering if the world could change. Try imagining a world worth living in, and then ask yourself if that isn’t worth fighting for.” What pulls me back to this novel is its layers of intersectionality and how being accepted in one space might lead to exclusion from another. Jess’s isolation is at its peak when they live for years as a man, saying that, though they were relatively safe, it was still “strange to be exiled from your own sex to borders that will never be home.” In my book, particularly the story, “About the Lies,” workers across the intersections of gender, sexuality, and class try—and sometimes succeed—to reconcile the numerous fractions of their identities.
Keeping true to hir anti-capitalist views, Feinberg made the book available for free download here, stating, “I give this novel back to the workers and oppressed of the world.”
In Where We Stand, hooks argues America must also look at class struggles if we wish to create a more equitable society. hooks shows that through her socioeconomic changes, from a poor Kentucky background to elite academies, she never abandoned the classed worldview which shaped her. She states, “Many people feel sorry for the poor or identify with their suffering yet do nothing to alleviate it.” Poor and working-class people do not want pity from dominant classes, they want to live well, honorably, and on their own terms.
In The Will to Change, hooks states, “The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males… that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves.” Across classes, men’s emotional toolboxes are robbed of the tools needed to be fully emotional beings. This theft is done not just by men, but by others boys and even women. Poor and working-class men, who lack the social and economic capital that their middle- and upper-class counterparts have, lean on their masculinity in ways that harm everyone.
A nonfiction twofer! These books helped me see my characters in a more sympathetic light, even though some are guilty of heinous acts.
Joe Milan Jr.
W. W. Norton & Company
This book follows seventeen-year-old Bucky Yi as he trains to become his high school football team’s best running back. As only one of three Korean students at his rural Washington high school, Bucky understands the impact of racism from white classmates. This is one of the motivations he uses to become a stronger, faster, and smarter football player. As he bulks up to impress college recruits, a violent encounter with the police leads to Bucky’s deportation to South Korea. As he tries to get home, Bucky relies on his strength to survive, but soon realizes this only gets him so far. Faced with the dilemma of not being American or Korean enough, not being strong enough, and not being man enough, Bucky is forced to evaluate the paths his life could go down. What strikes me with this novel is how Milan tackles the limited options given to working-class and poor men. Though they benefit from their maleness, they can’t rely on money, their family name, their careers, or any possessions to stand out. They are forced to rely on their roles as men, hurting those around them: women; other men; themselves.
I interviewed Milan about his debut novel while finishing edits for my own.
Donald Ray Pollock
Pollock does what any great rural author does when depicting small towns: he shows his readers the nuance in these places, these characters, and the stories they tell. Though the town of Knockemstiff is like many depressed and forgotten Midwest towns, Pollock gives his readers characters that show a range of emotions and opinions regarding where they live. Many struggle—even fail—to escape. Some find freedom. Some are hopeless. Some are even content. Taken as a whole, this collection shows how Smalltown, USA, is not simply a stereotype used by middle- and upper-class urbanites to gloss over. The opening story, “Real Life,” captures the violence in which many rural, working-class boys are raised. What’s more, it shows how this violence sometimes becomes a craving, as the young narrator states, “I tore at the skin with my teeth. I wanted more. I would always want more.” I read this short story collection about life in a poor, rural Ohio town when I started the earliest stories for Enough to Lose.
Tucker’s debut follows two best friends, Irene and Luce, as they drive headlong into a world of pills, a testament to the rural opioid epidemic—one of America’s worst kept secrets. Pool hall workers, living off tips and any money they can scrounge together, Irene and Luce have a dedication toward each other that pushes them through to their respective ends. To fuel their addictions, the two find themselves in situation after situation where their need to score takes the reader’s focus. However, Irene’s love for Luce is always simmering in the subtext, emerging in painfully honest and beautiful moments. This connection between characters is felt strongest when Irene’s and Luce’s lives go in separate directions, when Irene is forced to choose between living life on her own terms, or saving Luce once again. One story in particular in Enough to Lose, “The Run,” benefitted from the example Tucker lays out in Bewilderness. In the story, two best friends have their bond tested when a night out pushes them beyond a breaking point. In later drafts, I emphasized that, even though the world I’m writing about is very isolated, there is still community and friendship.
The House of Broken Angels
Luis Alberto Urrea
Back Bay Books
Big Angel, the dying patriarch of the de La Cruz family, wants to gather everyone for his last birthday party. As an example of the American Dream, Big Angel is the son of Mexican immigrants, who climbed up from menial labor to eventually buy a house in the suburbs. Enter Little Angel, the literature professor from Seattle and Big Angel’s half-brother, the child born out of Big Angel’s father’s affair with a white woman. Though raised together for a time, their father leaves Big Angel and his mother. Layered with identity and how these identities change with perspective, Little Angel is Mexican to his white family, but considered white by Big Angel’s side of the family. Though sharing the same working-class, first-generation American childhood as Big Angel, he’s a white-collar, educated man. His cousin even goes so far as to say that he’s rich because he’s a professor. The working class doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Classes rub against each other and often clash. In Enough to Lose, rich and poor live in close proximity. The class friction leads to shame, anger, and sometimes violence.
Salvage the Bones
Ward shows how, across race and class, environmental ruin will be felt first, and harshest, at the margins, and that includes rural people. Narrator Esch is the perfect guide for these margins, ushering readers through life with her rural, working-class, black family while they prepare for what turns out to be Hurricane Katrina. Hope is a foundation of many working-class stories. In this novel, Esch’s youngest brother, Skeetah, hopes his prized fighting dog, China, and her litter of future fighters are his way to escape poverty. Similarly, pregnant Esch hopes the father of her unborn child, Manny, will take responsibility. Daddy hopes that the family can weather the storm. Unlike their better-off, white neighbors, who have another home to escape to, Esch’s family is trapped. As the novel progresses, hope begins to fade. China’s puppies die one by one despite Skeetah sneaking them food from the family’s emergency stash. Manny grows more distant to Esch. Daddy’s drinking and absenteeism pushes him further from his children. Finally, as Hurricane Katrina lands, the literal and figurative waters rise. In the aftermath, those who remain are left to figure out what to do next. In “The Mirror,” the opening story of Enough to Lose, Detroit expats move to the country, looking for a “simple life.” An historic flood teaches them rural life is not an easy one.
As I touched on above with bell hooks, men in a patriarchal society aren’t allowed to keep and develop the emotional tools needed to fully show love to those most important to them. Working-class fathers must also navigate this on top of a series of lacks in terms of time, money, and leisure. This leaves a rift between men and boys. Wilson shows this in the famous scene between father and son when Cory asks his dad, Troy, why he doesn’t like him. Troy responds, “Who the hell says I got to like you?” He then barrages Cory with examples of what he does for him, “not because I like you” but because it is his “duty to take care of you.” He’s aggressive, loud, straightforward, and fixated on teaching Cory a life lesson about making sure people—especially white people—do right by him. For any boy whose father rarely—or never—told him “I love you,” there is subtext here. However, without the words or the act of giving love, there is a tragedy here, where the cycle of male aggression threatens to be perpetuated onto Cory as he grows into a man. Before I started Enough to Lose, I was fascinated by what one generation gives to the next, and how some things are perpetuated and others are forgotten.