Thursday, February 8, 2018

Economic Diversity in Fiction

Here on the blog we've talked about gender and racial diversity quite a bit as it pertains to fiction (both on the creator and creation sides), but something we've neglected thus far is a economic diversity of our characters (although we indie writers and small to medium press writer often bemoan the the difference in economic diversity among writers -- *grins*). So, let's remedy that.

For this roundtable, we're going to look at the class/economic considerations that go into building worlds and characters. 

Going back to Victorian fiction and before, so much of the fictional world was middle class (or higher) or the undertrodden class, and with a few notable exceptions, the twain didn't meet. Why? How much of that is a holdover in contemporary fiction?

Gordon Dymowski: Much of that, I think, is due to past writers not being aware of class distinctions. It's much easier to focus on aspirational writing (middle class) or "socially conscious" writing (about lower income people) because the greater implications can easily be avoided. Class issues are very touchy in our culture, and addressing how classes interact -- even in fiction -- was a bit of a challenge. If you come from a position of relative economic privilege, it may be tougher to identify with people who are struggling; if you are someone who is struggling economically, middle/upper class people were easy to idealize and resent... often in the same sentence.

In contemporary fiction, having both classes interact has become slightly more common.. .but not by much. Except for a few series like The Wire and Law & Order, most series focus almost exclusively on middle-class people. With many people struggling to stay afloat, having honest depictions of working or middle class life would be extremely helpful...but seem to be rare in media.

I.A. Watson: There's a direct historic correlation between class and literacy and a still-existing one between income levels and consumption of literature. The Victorian era was perhaps the first ever where literacy and economic capacity of the lower class was sufficient to support reading habits (and therefore the emergence of the first proto-pulp industry in the "penny dreadful" serials). Before that, almost all depictions of the lower classes were from upper and middle class perspectives, with the inherent prejudices and assumptions of those writers.

Even when the lower classes could choose literature, they either self-selected or had selected for them by publishers a great deal of "aspirational" subject matter - stories of royalty, nobility, the rich and powerful, rather than "kitchen sink" narratives of daily poverty. Where poorer people appeared, it was often as a background to a main character escaping to a "better life", as comedy or criminal supporting cast, or as domestic servants.

I'd argue that though such class distinctions have been much blurred in the West today, our literary roots still guide our reading expectations. It is still somewhat true that if the story is set in a "lower class" setting, that is what the narrative tends to be about, or it is a distinctive flavour necessary to the backstory.

What literature then and now tends to be quite poor at reflecting is "everyday" poorer working people -- not the "We grew up dirt poor in a crate under a bridge" dramatic poverty or the "Everyone on our street had to join a drug gang to survive" stuff, but the "We had a limited income all the time and couldn't afford college" or "Dad worked hard in a middle-class suburb" stuff. That's probably because it is harder to find story hooks in that kind of environment.

Michael Woods: I'm not sure how much people from different social or economic strata really interact. Everyone I know, I consider to be working class lower middle class or poor folks. We go to work, we bust hump, and hope for the best. I've never really had the chance to interact with folks who have never had to struggle to get by. Even the people I know who aren't struggling now, we're struggling for a long time.

Looking back through modern bestsellers it still seems that authors tend to center in on one demographic for their cast (particularly seen in TV fiction). What are the benefits of keeping the core cast homogeneous? What are the detriments?

I.A. Watson: In life, most people's core casts are a bit homogeneous. It's self-selecting, based on job, neighbourhood, or family. Wildly diverse multi-cultural multi-sexualitied, multi-social-classed groupings seem quite rare outside PC sitcoms - at least in my somewhat limited provincial social circles.

The benefits of the homogeneous group are that the story doesn't have to take time to reflect the differences, detracting from the main narrative, and that it helps solidify the immersion in that particular "world." We don't need to know about Hermoine's black transgender friend from before she went to Hogwarts or devote time for scenes with him. On the other hand, that kind of tight character set can reinforce the clique self-identification of a cast and can bypass a lot of "difference" drama or humour that so many stories benefit from. There's a reason so many mismatched cops buddy up to solve crimes.

Richard Laswell: I've seen more diversity on TV lately with costume dramas. I'm thinking of Victoria on PBS or This Is Us. By and large though, even these shows mostly show the higher and lower rungs of the economic ladder.

Gordon Dymowski: It's easier to "write what you know" and focus on characters who are just like also allows for greater intentional reader identification. (If you're writing Young Adult literature, you probably want your characters to be young adults.) "Writing only what you know", however, is incredibly lazy and self-indulgent – it means never moving outside your comfort zone, never telling engaging stories, and rarely (if ever) getting new readers.

And for most writers, getting people to read your books should be paramount.

Writing a homogeneous cast also limits your storytelling ability. After all, if your stories are based on the same person (or worse, idealized versions of how the writer perceives themselves), why should anyone else care? Writing creates insight into how others live and experience the world, and having only one demographic as your main character set only limits that ability to share the world.

(And yes, I am talking about diversity and inclusion on all levels, including economic. If you think that's being "politically correct", well...that phrase is so 1998. You might want to step away from the keyboard and check out the outside world.)

What can we do as writers to better integrate all socioeconomic classes into our fiction?

I.A. Watson: I think many of the lessons we try to apply in other diversity representations probably apply here: reflect diversity accurately, avoiding stereotype; only use homogeneity as it is and if it is required; ensure that the worlds we build have sufficient depth to accommodate a range of backgrounds; research any culture enough to represent it with some credibility.

Michael Woods: When I write characters from diverse economic backgrounds, I have to create a situation in where they would meet and circumstances around how they could be friends. It can get pretty convoluted and as entertaining as the situations they get into that leads up to them being friends, it's mostly not important to the reader or the story, but I still need to do it so that I can feel the characters. I don't think modern fiction treads that ground all that much outside of fantasy fiction.

Gordon Dymowski: Part of the challenge is that as writers, many of us don't examine our own biases. We tend to operate as if "we know better" without looking at our world view. One of the ways in which writers can better integrate socioeconomic considerations into our characters is to look at how *we* perceive the world. Do we perceive people who receive government aid (SNAP, Medicaid, etc) as "gaming the system"? Do we internally mock wealthy people because they don' t have "dirt under their fingernails"?

It also means stepping outside our comfort zone and actually getting a sense of *how* different groups live? Know someone who visits a food pantry regularly? Offer to go with them and help. Talk to people where you socialize - church, meetings, etc. Consider attending open 12 Step meetings (I'm serious: addiction crosses socioeconomic boundaries). Think of it as a natural extension of research before writing a story – identifying and feeling compassionate towards others of different classes helps writers integrate that perspective into their writing.

How accurately does modern fiction address the realities of various socioeconomic groups? How can we better illustrate these realities?

Richard Laswell: I'm not sure how one could write major characters from diverse economic backgrounds interacting. Could a story about two friends, one of which is struggling in a paycheck to paycheck situation while the other lives a life of ease on his inheritance be more than about the economics?

Michael Woods: A group of kids or adults from the same background will be able to understand each other better than the rich kids and their poor friend or whatever.

Gordon Dymowski: I would say...not well, but getting better. As more diverse voices are being heard, we are seeing some unique portrayals of class and race (like Blackish, The Wire, Showtime's The Chi). Unfortunately, many writers stick to well-worn cliches: the dive bar with neon, ratty walls in an apartment, etc. to connote the reality of various socioeconomic groups. On the other hand, the wealthy are often portrayed as being in an ideal state. (And no, I did not like Wolf of Wall Street, why do you ask?) We've gotten to a point where wealth and status are considered ideal, and that those who attain it are somewhat "bad".

How do we better illustrate these realities? Focus on building strong characters. Not every rich person is greedy or benevolent; not every poor person is looking for the "big score". Despite being harsh, the reality is that many people are struggling day to day fighting off despair and futility...and that's very heroic. Surviving with their optimism intact and avoiding cynicism can be the most glorious task a human being performs. We need to remember that heroism comes in all shapes, sizes, genders...and socioeconomic statuses.

I.A. Watson: Some socioeconomic groups have become well-known enough to develop their own tropes and stereotypes. The "working-class rogue rebel antihero", often with his cheeky regional accent (e.g. Constantine from DC's Hellblazer), the hard-working kid from the dirt-poor company town who brought up seven siblings, the gang kid who clawed his way from the gutters with blood on his knuckles etc. But these have now often become romanticed and fictionalised to the point of being separated from their original sources.

Better illustrating the realities is harder. It requires some plot relevance to that reality, which in turn requires a plot that supports that; so part of the challenge is in crafting stories where such reality is integral to the content. It requires careful understanding of a situation, and that's hard to gain without "write what you know" first-hand experience. So, for example, I could probably set a story in the 1980s bleakness of the UK national Miner's Strike, with the riots and horrendous poverty and the social division it all caused. I might be able to port some of that across to a story set in 1890s Appalachia or another similar historical occurrence. I would really struggle to properly portray a poor Asian kid growing up in San Francisco in the 1960s.

Actually,, I could do a better job of portraying a poor working-class Roman plebeian of the 1st century AD  to a modern audience. An actual 1st century Roman would laugh my interpretation out of the forum, or would find it offensive, but the setting is so far removed from any modern frame of reference that there are no accurate benchmarks. Whereas there are benchmarks for poor Irish migrants of the 1920s or economic slaves in Chinese sweatshops today. The audience judges with a different set of criteria and a different standard of suspension of disbelief.

What are the tropes and cliches we need to be wary of when integrating classes in fiction, such as the Dickinsian model of poor kid comes into money through adoption or some other means?

Gordon Dymowski: One of the more insidious tropes that I'm seeing play out in fiction is that of the "entrepreneur"- you know, the John Galt-type who pushes forth with great success, wealth, etc. The person who "pulled themselves up by their bootstraps" and built a business, and who will tell you *precisely* what you need to do. You know, the kind of person who might appear on Shark Tank?

This trope needs to end. Pronto.

I know a lot of people (including myself) who are working to build their own business. Unfortunately, "gurus" like Tony Robbins, Seth Godin, and Gary Vaynerchuk make it sound like its easy, and glorify the idea that if you're not an "entrepreneur", you have no worth. Fiction tends to focus on this glorification, and this 21st century variation of the "self-made individual" trope is overused. (I would include descriptions of "bro culture" as well). If we're constructing stories that fully engage readers, we need to focus less on the ideal and more on the everyday in terms of class...because the reality can be even more dramatic than anything we can create.

I.A. Watson: I think by now we're all a bit wary of the hero's jaunty, jive-talking, happy and cool supporting character/"street" friend, the Huggy Bear character. I shy away from things like the Pretty Woman romanticising of prostitution as glamorous or even sexy, even though it's a very old trope (it dates back to things like The Threepenny Opera with it's representation of cool antihero Mac the Knife, pimp, rapist, and murderer). I also try to avoid the counter-prejudice that everybody with money was an incompetent twit or an utter bastard.

Michael Woods: I use the fish out of water cliche more than any other because it can easily explain almost anything going on.