Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Will This Generation's Steinbeck Please Stand Up

Sales are slumping at McDonald's. Those who were regular patrons of the fast food joint find themselves so stretched financially that even the items on the dollar menu are beyond their reach.

Those who are doing well in this current economic climate tend to have nice little stock portfolios, and they also tend to eat higher quality food than that which is to be found at McDonald's. The ones left behind on the lowest rung of the ladder are surviving on local food pantry offerings and food stamps, which McDonald's does not accept.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the poor were readily apparent. They stood in lines at soup kitchens. They crowded freight trains that crossed the country, searching for work of some kind. They fled from Dust Bowl farms in Oklahoma, their caravans visible to any photographer seeking an image of hardship and hard times.

They are not so visible these days, except in the coldness of a statistic. The so-called "long-term unemployed" are just the unemployed of the 1930s, but you won't find a body of literature being produced that documents their struggles. Where is this generation's John Steinbeck?

The blue collar demographic was hit the hardest in the 1930s, and their experiences instilled a near mania for education. It was the uneducated laborer that featured prominently in Steinbeck's works, but who is writing about these people now?

Scan the New York Times bestseller list and you'll find plenty of mysteries and thrillers. A novel about two children during the Second World War. A female protagonist dealing with substance abuse. Not a single novel about children whose parents can't find work and must subsist on wits and government handouts. No stories about a carpenter living in his car with his family, chasing across the country in search of any kind of work.

In this age of beancounters, an acquisitions editor at a major publishing house would turn down such books because there is no perceived appeal. Those who buy books can't relate to those who need every penny they can scrape together to put gas in the car to drive to another state in the hope that a job is at the end of the road. Hence, no sales. No sales, no profit. No thanks.

New York's literary agents are college educated and no doubt studied Steinbeck extensively as English majors, but they only want what sells and literary fiction just isn't moving.

Steinbeck documented a subset of Americana that continues to fascinate. Why else is an adaptation of his novel OF MICE AND MEN currently drawing a crowd on Broadway?

But the modern day Lennys and Georges? Not so much. There's unemployement benefits, aren't there? Government programs to help those sort of people get by?

No comments: