These are the words of an American reader: "I haven't read a good book in ages. I mean the literary stuff, not the junk. There's no weight to any of it. No world view. Just one more novel about some guy's mid-life crisis, or how lonely some writer is now that he's famous, or some woman rediscovering marriage for the '80s, or that horrible metafiction where we're supposed to be thrilled because the writer can really use words!"
That reader is quoted in a piece called " 'Sensibility' and the Novel" that was published the other day in Publishers Weekly. It was written by Robert Ward, the author of an admirable new novel called "Red Baker," and it aches with passion and outrage. "There are a million people coming through the creative writing programs," Ward writes, "and all of them can sling words, but where is their spirit, their will to engage things outside their narrow little class of friends?" The central question that Ward poses is one that more and more serious readers seem to be asking:
"What happened to writers who had a really larger vision of the world, who went into the real world and observed how other people lived -- authors like George Orwell, Richard Wright, adventurers like Henry Miller, bold artists like Theodore Dreiser, even Dickens and Defoe? Writers who were able to submerge their precious selves into the difficult but rewarding task of creating characters who were unlike themselves. Writers, like Tolstoy, who took real chances and understood that personal fates were tied up with great historical moments. Writers who wrote passionately, and compassionately, about the poor, who had a sense of injustice as well as a sense of mystery . . . "
What happened, Ward argues on the strength of his own experience, is that literature, and the people who make it, became divorced from life. He tells about his education at a state teachers college where well-meaning professors of English -- whom he readily credits with helping him discover his vocation as a writer -- "hammered home one lesson over and over again, and that was this: the highest literary ideal was the cultivation of sensibility, and the highest sensibility one could aspire to was that of the Ironic View of Life."
Ward tried to do as he was taught, but somehow the lesson didn't take hold. The '60s came along and, with them, "hope and a feeling of love in the air." Gradually he learned "how to listen all over again, not to the language of professors but that of working people." He learned "that one can write about the so-called average man with all the passion and intelligence (and even some of the irony) with which one can write about the genteel life; that poor people aren't less complex, they simply have less money."
This is a valuable lesson, and it led Ward to write a valuable book. "Red Baker" is the story of a steel- worker in Ward's own home town of Baltimore who is laid off from his job at the mill around which the entire life of his neighborhood has revolved for decades; he finds himself confronted with a future that is both more complex and more mysterious than anything he has ever known, and with the certain prospect that the world in which he has lived all his life -- the world he had always assumed to be immutable -- will never again be the same. It is a novel about men and women (and children, too) who almost never appear in American fiction these days, yet who are heart- breakingly real and whose voices urgently need to be heard.
It's a novel about the predicament of the poor -- or, to be more precise, about the newly poor -- yet it is not a political novel. There's a reference or two in it to Ronald Reagan and the economic injustices of the early '80s, but these are comments of the sort one would expect to hear in ordinary conversation among ordinary people; the book is about people, not politics, and it gains much of its strength from the honesty and compassion with which it portrays these people. In so doing Ward has accomplished what he describes in his essay as "the novelist's real job: creating a fictional world that reflects true, lived experience."
This is in contrast to the poor, or the lower middle class, as they customarily appear in contemporary American fiction. Such appearances are most infrequent, but when they occur it is almost always to assist the writer in grinding one or another of his own axes; these aren't characters who exist for their own worth as human beings, but caricatures who permit the author to express the many complaints he holds against American society. Thus, for example, we have Bob Dubois, the protagonist of Russell Banks' "Continental Drift," a novel much overpraised in literary circles; Dubois, who in the novel's early pages shows the potential to be interesting and sympathetic, quickly degenerates into a mere vehicle through which Banks unloads the full arsenal of English-department political grievances, and the novel eventually collapses into something not much more elevated than a political tract.
The difference between "Red Baker" and the so-called literary novels is that the former subsumes its political convictions into its characters and story, while the latter sacrifice character and story to politics. The result is that the literary novels are not really about the poor or lower middle class at all; they are about elite perceptions of those classes, and elite notions about what got them into the fixes in which they find themselves. "Red Baker," on the other hand, may well contain a substratum of political commentary -- though if it does, Ward has managed to disguise it most effectively -- but this is quite incidental to the powerful human story the novel tells, a story that takes its "ordinary" people seriously and that grants them the dignity they possess in actual life.
By contrast with the work of Dickens or Dreiser, "Red Baker" is admittedly slight; its canvas is small and its themes are relatively modest. But at a time when "serious" American literature has become self-referential and thus possibly self-destructive, it reminds us that the door to the real world is still open to writers -- that all they need is the courage to walk through it. What they find when they do so may seem quite different from the world in which they have lived, but it could prove to be the raw material for fiction that, like "Red Baker," has something to say about life as the rest of the country actually lives it.