Before I get started with my first blog entry, I'd like to thank the Red Room for letting me have an author's space in their beautifully designed, intuitive web home.
Now, on with the show. A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to serve as moderator for a talk by poet and fiction writer Ali Liebegott, hosted by the Honors College at the University of Oklahoma and organized by Professor Marcia Chatelain. Since I was not familiar with the work of this Lambda Award winner, I ordered both her novel, The IHop Papers, and her book-length poem (which is sometimes referred to as a verse novel), The Beautifully Worthless. As I read The Beautifully Worthless, I kept saying to myself, "Why haven't I run into this amazing poem before?" While many readers have asked that of themselves at one time or another, for me, the question is also a matter of academic discipline—I'm a member of the Working Class Studies Association and my dissertation is on contemporary women's poetry of work and workers. I should have found this book long ago.
Both The Beautifully Worthless and The IHOP Papers (that's IHOP as in the restaurant), are narrated by a waitress and set in working-class communities. Neither book participates in the common generic conventions of "class passing" where the main character is working-class passing as middle-class (or vice-versa) nor are they class bildungsromans that celebrate a character's "rising" from the working class to become a successful middle-class person. The characters in Liebegott's books are working class, work is a central concern, and the problems and pleasures of working-class life are honestly, accurately, and skillfully presented. Liebegott's writing is deceptively simple, painfully beautiful, and emotionally powerful. It is accessible to people outside academia but it does not talk down to its readers. I thought about adding a link to reviews of Ali’s writing, but the reviews I read* missed or dismissed or ridiculed or found charming her truthful representation of working-class life; working-class writers have become all too accustomed to this sort of response. So, instead of referring my readers to these reviews, I suggest you pick up a copy of The IHOP Papers and review it yourself.
Many working-class writers and critics have commented that working-class literature is unrecognizable in America; part of the reason is that Americans don't like to talk about class and would prefer to imagine it doesn't exist. However, those of us who do talk about the intersection of class and literature have our own set of blind spots; we consistently return to a static set of authors and texts as the material ground of our scholarly pursuits. This is partly due to the nature of academic writing which requires that scholars reference other scholars who talk about the same static set of texts. I admit my own complicity in this problem, and I hope that this blog entry not only introduces Ali Liebegott to a wider range of readers, but also opens a door for all of us to talk about class in literature and society—wherever we find it.
Wendell Rickets anthology of writing by working-class gay men, Everything I Have is Blue is the first working-class anthology to connect with the queer literary world; it is also the first queer anthology to connect with working-class writers and readers. Unfortunately, it is out of print; it was published by the same press as Liebegott’s The Beautifully Worthless, Suspect Thoughts. It would be great if the press could print a second run of both books. Rickett’s ongoing project, "Still Blue: More Writing by (for or about) Working-Class Queers, is “an opportunity to use creative writing to build connections among working-class queers across race, gender, and region." Ricketts encourages working-class writers of all genders to submit writing to the project; he also welcomes previously published writing, because he is aware that many queer writers, like many working-class writers, do not often get the opportunity to present their work to audiences outside the respective boundaries of "queer writing" or "working class writing." Perhaps this too, contributes to the invisibility of working-class queer writing: Ricketts and Liebegott are publishing work that is too gay for the working-class readers and too working class for middle-class queer readers. The Lambda Award committee deserves kudos for stepping across this divide; I challenge working-class literary critics and scholars (including me!) to do the same. Working-class writing, queer and straight, is beautiful, not worthless.
*I did not read all the reviews ever written on Liebegott's work, just the ones linked in the first six or seven hits on a Google search.