Jonathan Lethem on realism and class

In an interview with Robert Birnbaum Jonathan Lethem tells us how he really feels:

Look, let me be brutal. When you encounter the argument that there is a hierarchy where certain kinds of literary operations -which we’ll call ‘realism,’ for want of a handier term, though I’ll insist on the scare quotes – represent the only authentic and esteemed tradition, well, it’s a load of horseshit. When you see or hear that kind of hierarchy being proposed, it’s not a literary – critical operation. It’s a class operation. In that system of allusions, of unspoken castes and quarantines, mimetic fiction is associated with propriety, with the status quo defending itself, anxiously, against incursions from the great and wooly Beyond.

When ‘realism’ is esteemed over other kinds of literary methods, you’re no longer in a literary – critical conversation; you’ve entered a displaced conversation about class. About the need for the Brahmin to keep an Untouchable well-marked and in close proximity, in order to confirm his role as Brahmin. Once something has been relegated or outcast or quarantined from propriety, you’re seeing a kind of burnishing of class credentials, a hastening to the redoubt, a drawing-up of the drawbridge of the castle, because the moat is too full of terrifying fish and fowl. A critic who expends much energy on delineating quarantines – “This sort of material is legitimate” is testifying as to their own anxieties as to whether or not they themselves are on the legitimate side of some imagined moat or gulf. “We’re going to draw a line here, and feel very relieved and superior about the people on one side of the line and very disappointed and sorry for the people on the other side.” It’s not a literary critical distinction of any usefulness whatsoever.

Bracing, no? To use a blogosphere cliche, read the whole thing. The above is near the end, Lethem also has interesting things to say on a variety of subjects before he gets worked up about the realism issue.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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