Monday, October 19, 2009

Michael Yates's "In and Out of the Working Class," by Louis Proyect

from Swans Commentary: Michael Yates's "In and Out of the Working Class," by Louis Proyect:
In the course of reading Michael Yates's collection of essays In and Out of the Working Class, it dawned on me that I prefer reading memoirs to novels in the same way that I generally prefer documentary to fiction films. If the essence of literature, as Henry James once pointed out, is character, then you are forced to stick with the truth. The explanation for this is socioeconomic and historical. Now that we have reached the end of the tether for American imperialism, which was correctly likened to Nero's Rome in Michael Moore's Capitalism: a Love Story, Hollywood and mainstream publishing have a vested interest in escapist fare that takes the minds of the citizenry off their real problems. Plots and characters become more and more removed from the reality we face, and hence less interesting.

It should be mentioned that while four pieces are labeled fiction, they are very closely related in subject matter and perspective to those labeled nonfiction -- namely the conflicted lives of working people from the vantage point of the author, a lifelong academic who emerged -- or escaped -- from their world. Michael Yates's writing is interesting in the same way that the literature of the 1930s remains interesting. Despite the fact that American society is made up in its vast majority by people who sell their labor power -- to use a bit of the Marxist lexicon -- they are almost invisible today. Like African-American Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, a novel about a black man's search for identity in racist America, the worker is of little interest to the professional writer, except perhaps as an object of ridicule as in television shows like The King of Queens.