"So Much of a Thing"
Some notes on class & portrayal
I just started reading an anthology called White Trash: Race and Class in America.1 It was recommended to me by a friend and colleague because I’m working on a collection of essays about the class divide, and the increasingly uncommon experience of having lived on both sides of it. (I spent the first half of my life in mostly rural, working-class, conservative military environments, and have spent the second in academia, a mostly urban/suburban, wealthy, liberal one.)
I’m not far enough into White Trash to say much about it. But it’s already clear that, although the book is twenty-five years old, its assessment of social class’s place within American identity politics seems prescient. Namely, that it’s almost completely ignored, especially in the circles I inhabit these days. I see this refusal to acknowledge class constantly in publishing and academia, institutions run and occupied largely by educated white liberals that are also—perhaps not coincidentally—among the most elitist institutions in America.
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I found myself thinking about that a lot while reading Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom, which I mentioned in the last newsletter, but had just begun at the time. I spent most of the last month reading it, a long time for a relatively short book—about 250 pages, including copious endnotes—and a pace only partly explained by the fact that I was also traveling and preparing for my Winter classes. It’s a dense book of what Nelson calls “weak theory,” a genre she defines like so: “It emphasizes heterogeneity, and invites a certain epistemological uncertainty. It is undisturbed by inconclusiveness and mess. It takes its time…”
The latter is certainly true. Like much of Nelson’s work, On Freedom lacks any real narrative propulsion. (This is undoubtedly intentional—she mentions near the end her “longstanding Beckett-like resistance to narrative,” which is a nonfiction professor sentence if I’ve ever read one.) To be clear, I don’t see that as a problem: I appreciate an unapologetically smart and challenging, even rarefied book, although I wondered a bit who it was for, and the best answer I could come up with was other academics, which does prompt some questions about its relationship to class.
I’m a fan of Nelson’s work. I regularly teach Jane and The Red Parts in my true crime classes, and they’re both among my favorite books. I was once involved in inviting her to give a reading, and she’s a marvelous reader, with the ability to command a room even while reading dense and highbrow prose. (If you haven’t been to many author events, it’s hard to overstate just how rare that is—on the list of the worst experiences of my life, half are literary readings, including a few of my own.)
All of which I mention so it’s clear that I’m not trying to “dunk on”2 Maggie Nelson or whatever. She’s one of my favorite writers. I’m also leery of the type of book criticism, so ascendant at the moment, where the only thing you talk about is the one thing you didn’t like, especially if it gives you an excuse for facile outrage. So I should say that I loved this book on balance, and would suggest it to anyone who writes or teaches writing, if only hesitantly to a “general reader,” whatever that means. On Freedom is typical of her work in that it’s brilliant, provocative, and brave, thoughtful and deeply researched. One of my favorite things about Nelson’s work is the way it functions as what she calls “thinking aloud,” but is also thinking with: her books are compendiums of quotes and ideas from other books I want to read, and in that sense, among others, I think her work quite literally makes its readers smarter.
But I do have issues with On Freedom’s attention—or lack thereof—to class. Nelson rarely mentions the subject. At this point, I more or less expect that from any product of the American publishing apparatus, but it seems like an especially glaring omission in a book about freedom. When Nelson does mention class, she does so in the way most people in her demographic tend to, either as an afterthought or by conflating it with race and/or gender.
So here’s the thing: how do you write a book about freedom in contemporary America and hardly mention mass incarceration? One might think that more than a million unfree citizens—most of whom are Black, poor, or both—would be worthy of more than four passing mentions, by my count, only one of which is in the context of race, and without any acknowledgment of class at all.3 It gets worse: the first time prison comes up, it’s employed as a particularly tone-deaf metaphor for, of all things, the difficulty of writing.4
To her credit, Nelson seems to understand—and even acknowledge—the limitations of her perspective. Near the end, she writes: “There are a thousand ways in which the spirit of my thought feels determined, sometimes overdetermined, by my demographics.” And maybe it’s not her responsibility or goal to cover every aspect of freedom. (Her situation is not the same as, for example, Eula Biss’s Having and Being Had, a book about class that Nelson cites approvingly, whose blindered discussion of its main subject I discussed at some length elsewhere.)
My issue is less with Nelson’s book than it is with the implications of her point about demographics, especially when it comes to class. The spirit of our collective thought—literary, critical, and academic—is also determined, and often overdetermined, by demographics. This kind of class blindness is a cultural phenomenon, not an individual one, and it’s going to continue unless more working-class people are represented in artistic and cultural institutions. As someone who infiltrated one of them, academia, and who has witnessed its rampant, unapologetic elitism from the inside, I’m not holding my breath.
Maybe because I’d just finished the Nelson book, class was also on my mind as I watched Escape at Dannemora, a Showtime limited series from 2018 based on a real prison escape in upstate New York. Somehow I had never heard of it until recently, although it has a stellar cast—Patricia Arquette, Benicio Del Toro, Paul Dano, and David Morse (one of my favorite “that guy” actors)—and was directed by Ben Stiller, the auteur behind Zoolander, a movie I love so much I used to teach it in my freshman composition classes when I was in grad school.
I watched Escape mostly because I teach true crime classes—I’m teaching one right now—and I’m always looking for interesting variations on the form. Stiller’s series is an example of a subgenre in which real crimes are used as the basis for a lightly fictionalized, character-driven narrative. (Mindhunter is a better-known example, although I have a hard time with that show.)
In some ways, I prefer a good fictionalization to documentary crime shows that use artifacts (family photos/videos, etc) and reenactments to tell what’s technically a truer story. Partly this is because I have repeatedly been asked to participate in the latter, an experience I wrote about in my last book; partly it’s because they tend to be so exploitative and sensationalist. The “based on a true story” approach allows for more depth, as does the limited series format, which gives the show seven episodes to tell the story.
Escape is well made: the writing’s sharp, Dano is exceptional, and Stiller has always struck me as a sneakily good director, one with a coherent and striking visual style. (Although they’re totally different tonally and in terms of genre, many of Zoolander’s hallmarks are evident here, from the prominence of era-specific pop music to long sequences that take place underground, lit mostly by headlamps.)
And while I genuinely liked the series, I had a similar issue with it as I did with Nelson’s book. One of the appeals of a story set in prison is that all the characters are poor or working class, which is exceedingly rare for any mainstream cultural product. In fact, pretty much the only time you’re going to see a group of working-class people portrayed is in the context of sports or incarceration. And the stereotypical shorthand for portraying poor characters is by making them dumb, ugly, or a criminal, often a violent one. Escape does all three.
Dano and Del Toro’s characters, both murderers (well, Dano’s is technically an accessory) are, in fairness, smart and resourceful—and given some depth in the sense that they’re both dedicated painters. But they exist only in the context of criminality. Even their backstories, which we get in the penultimate episode, focus on the crimes for which they’re imprisoned. That alone wouldn’t be worth remarking on; you could argue that the show’s focus on their criminality is more about relevance than classism.
But the guards’ portrayals are even worse. Tilly, played by Patricia Arquette, is the prison employee who enters into a relationship with the two inmates. That relationship is sexual in the show, perhaps gratuitously so, to which the real Tilly took exception; as is often the case, the working-class female character gets portrayed as hypersexualized. Her character is also unrealistically dumb and easily manipulated, speaks as if she has a speech impediment, and dresses like a Person of Wal-Mart. It’s both a ridiculous caricature and standard fare for an onscreen portrayal of a working-class person.
Her husband, Lyle, is even worse, a homely everyman who talks and acts as if somebody just hit him in the head with a baseball bat. Then there’s the kicker: the actor who plays him wears crooked, yellowed prosthetic teeth.
You could argue that it’s for the sake of accuracy—the person he’s portraying has similar teeth, according to online photos. (The real Lyle refused to participate in the series; maybe he’s not so dumb after all.) But both Eric Lange (who plays Lyle) and Stiller expressed some hesitation about the fake teeth, and in fact Stiller had to “cut them back” three times because they were “so much of a thing.” It makes you wonder why they needed to use a prosthesis at all—why that was such a point of emphasis about realism, when other aspects of the story were fictionalized? It’s especially troubling considering the long history of bad teeth serving as a crass cultural shorthand for poverty, which Sarah Smarsh, one of my favorite writers on the subject of class, outlined better than I can in her essay “Poor Teeth.”
Once again, I like Ben Stiller, and the series is good on balance. But I have a hard time with its portrayal of working-class characters, and it makes me feel like pointing out some perhaps uncharitable things, like the fact that Stiller is a nepo baby, and this isn’t the first time he’s done this. At least in Zoolander, it was funny.
My other main preoccupation this month, football, has less to do with class, although I do think the sport is unpopular among writers/academics/etc in part because they perceive it as déclassé. (I wrote about this, and why I disagree, in more depth long ago, in a review of one of my favorite football books, Tom McAllister’s Bury Me In My Jersey.) That said, if you’re on Team Sportsball, feel free to skip the rest of this.
I’m a fairly rabid Eagles fan—I was born in Philly, and one side of my family goes back generations there—and I’m writing this a few hours after they advanced to the Super Bowl. But their playoff run isn’t the only reason I’ve been thinking about football a lot this month. Two days after I sent my last newsletter, Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest during an NFL game. He lay there for minutes, in front of his teammates and sixty thousand spectators, as well as tens of millions watching live at home, while medics brought him back from the brink of death, twice.
In the weeks since, Hamlin has, to the great relief of everyone, made a miraculous recovery. But I started writing notes for this post in the hours after his collapse, when the entire football industrial complex was trying to reckon with the possibility that a player might have just died on the field. For all of football’s violence, that has only happened once before in the NFL. (A handful of deaths happen every year in high school and college, enough that there’s an annual report tracking them.)
I had never heard of Hamlin before that game. His team is in a different conference from the Eagles, he’s only been in the NFL for two years, and he plays an unsung position. I also didn’t see his collapse happen, and have managed to avoid a replay. But it was still most of what I thought about for the next few days. I think anyone who played football probably did the same.
I played in high school, but that was more than twenty years ago, at a tiny school in rural Arizona, and what we did was so different in terms of the talent, risk, and stakes involved that it might as well have been a different game. I didn’t particularly like playing football; baseball and basketball were my sports. But when you hit a growth spurt one summer and show up for your junior year suddenly six-five, two-fifteen, the football coach finds you.
I wasn’t very good. I was too slow, and while I liked hitting people—there are few better feelings in life than squaring up a quarterback—I didn’t like getting hit. Call me soft all you want, Coach, that shit is unpleasant. Thankfully, I never saw an injury nearly as bad as Hamlin’s. I watched one kid get stretchered off in a neck brace—later I heard he was fine—and saw one nasty dislocated hip, all kinds of sprains and fractures, and lots of concussions, a few of which were mine; back then, at least where I grew up, concussions weren’t considered injuries. (The first concussion studies were in progress at the time, but the science didn’t go public until much later, in part because the NFL obstructed them.)
I never really worried about getting injured. The whole point of practice is to develop muscle memory, to overcome that fear and be able to play without really thinking. That feeling might be impossible to describe to anyone who hasn’t played organized sports; it’s also a big reason I loved playing them. Those few seconds of exhilaration after the snap, the freedom from having to think. And one of the things you’re not thinking about is that you might get hit in just the wrong spot, at just the wrong time, and die.
I was lucky. I only got hurt a few times, and nothing major—dislocated fingers, sprained ankles, turf toe—although even that relatively small catalog later led to multiple surgeries to repair damage caused or exacerbated by football. And I only played for two years. Imagine the physical pain and fear of disability a professional has to endure.
This season, I’ve started listening to a few podcasts hosted by current or former players, and I was fascinated to hear what they had to say about the toll the sport takes on your body and the experience of seeing another player nearly die on the field. One is New Heights, co-hosted by the Kelce brothers, Jason—a legendary figure in Philadelphia and one of my all-time favorite Eagles—and Travis, who plays for the Chiefs. It launched in September, right before the NFL season started, and has already become the most popular sports podcast in the country. It’s often hilarious to hear two grown brothers joke and bicker—Jason stormed out in the middle of one episode—and it helps that they’re both future Hall of Famers who understand the sport better than any sports journalist ever could. (I wrote most of this before we knew they’d also be the first brothers ever to face each other in the Super Bowl. This week’s episode ought to be good.)
Another of my favorites is The Right Time with Bomani Jones, for my money the smartest sports commentator in America (and, a little trivia for the literary folks, brother of acclaimed novelist Tayari). I’m especially fond of Foxworth Fridays, in which Jones has his friend and former NFL cornerback Domonique Foxworth on to talk about the NFL. Foxworth is honest and eloquent about why he played, and his calculations of the risks and rewards involved, in a way I’ve rarely heard a pro football player be.
Not to be confused with Nancy Eisenberg’s recent history of class in America, the memoir about being a “high-class call girl,” the popular cookbook, or the anthology of Eugenic Family Studies materials, all of which share the same title. The fact that so many books blithely use a classist slur as a title itself suggests a lot of things about how class works in publishing. (Don’t even get me started about Hillbilly Elegy.)
I have a theory about this phrase: nobody who uses it earnestly has ever dunked a basketball.
In addition to the example mentioned here, once as the “psychiatric-carceral state” punishing sexual deviance; again as “an apparatus” that will usher in “a new era of forced incarceration” in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade; and lastly as a “criminal justice system that makes sure nonwhite others disproportionately pay the price.”
Writers say this kind of shit all the time, comparing writing to a lot of much harder experiences most will never have: manual labor, imprisonment, and so on. There ought to be a law.