Continuing on a theme of work this week, but closer to home, I’m thinking about layers of privilege. We think of class distinctions as being between people who work in factory, construction, and other menial jobs versus those who are in professions and managerial roles. But there are many class distinctions within the professions as well.
Recently, for a project I’m working on, I’ve been reading author biographies, and I revisited The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” issue published in June of 2010. The New Yorker publishes a summer fiction issue every year, and last year they chose to feature their top writers under the age of 40.
On the surface, the list is a paragon of progressive balance. Gone are the all-male, all-white lists of a few decades ago. A full half of the list is comprised of women, and there are 6 non-whites on the list. A variety of white ethnicities and persuasions are included, including at least 3 Jews. Several are immigrants or barely second-generation Americans. At first, the list looks like an ideal of the Melting Pot. Yet, poke a little bit and privilege raises its head again.
Of their 44 college/university degree admissions (a few of their degrees went unfinished), only 5 of them came from public universities other than the University of Iowa. These 5 degrees were: a pre-med degree at Peking University in China for someone who went on to get two master’s degrees from Iowa (an MS in immunology and an MFA); a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Connecticut for someone who went on to two graduate degrees at Johns Hopkins and Yale; a bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida for someone who went on to go to medical school at Eastern Virginia, study at Harvard Divinity, and finally receive an MFA at Iowa; and two MFAs, one from University of California Irvine and one from Hunter College of the City University of New York. There were 6 MFAs from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
Of the 20 young writers, at least 4 have either studied medicine or at some point been on a science track in preparation for studying medicine. Two of them have MD degrees. (Three of them have fathers who are doctors.)
I think the best advice I could give to those wanting to be creative writers is: attend Ivy League institutions, get an MFA from the University of Iowa, or become a physician. Unfortunately, you can’t choose your father’s profession.
Not that all of those who get degrees from Ivy League universities or Iowa or who study medicine go on such meteoric rises to fame as writers. And not that no one with a more modest educational pedigree ever succeeds. But statistically those things seem to improve someone’s odds significantly. I am happy to say that UCF (where I teach) has just sent its first undergrad on to the MFA program at Columbia.
However, perhaps, as I suspect, the key statistical factor for success is being born into privilege and/or to families that are highly educated and well-connected.
Of course, there are a couple of sort-of exceptions on the list—Philipp Meyer claims to have been raised in a “working-class neighborhood” by a father who was an “electrician turned college biology instructor” and a mother who was an “artist.” Wells Tower’s parents were both teachers, and ZZ Packer has noted that her father owned a bar and her mother worked in a clerical or administrative job for the Social Security Administration, and that her opportunities came in a school program that recruited minority students into top universities.
A few others seem to be fairly elusive about their backgrounds—there were 4 of the 20 for whom I couldn’t find any specific or only vague accounts of their parents’ professions in an internet scan, though their elite schooling is front and center in bios. It’s hard to know whether that information gap comes from a mere focus on professionalism, as I’m sure many would assert, or if there’s also something else at work—a working-class shame or a desire not to acknowledge a background of privilege, especially when a writer’s work focuses on poverty like that of C. E. Morgan and Dinaw Mengestu. The latter, for instance, notes that his father worked for Caterpillar immediately after immigrating from Ethiopia, but not what he did there or what later jobs he had when, as Mengestu notes, his family moved to Chicago to pursue “middle-class comfort” and where he attended an elite Roman Catholic high school. Salvatore Scibona says that his parents didn’t have the money to pay for his college, but not what they did for a living. For those who will not be specific about their lives or who are cryptic, it’s impossible to know.
As a sideline, it’s also indicative of something that even when these young writers mention their fathers’ careers, they often don’t mention any career for their mothers. So, I found careers for 16 to 17 fathers/grandfathers, but only 10 for mothers. There may still be a large housewife factor for the mothers of prominent writers.
There’s a strong cultural belief that our country is a meritocracy, and I’m sure that a lot of people would explain all of this by noting that these young writers simply have more talent and drive than other young writers. Not only is admission to The New Yorker a practice that must select from the best, so is admission to these elite universities. I certainly do agree that they are a highly talented group, and I’m a fan of some of their writing. I’ll never forget reading Nicole Krauss’s “From the Desk of Daniel Varsky” in Harper’s in 2007—I thought it was the best thing by far and away that I had read in any of the big magazines in years, maybe ever.
But I also laughed out loud when reading an article about her in New York magazine (“Bio Hazards”) that talks about the trials of her being married to another hot young writer, Jonathan Safran Foer, receiving a six-figure advance on her second and third novels, living in a multi-million-dollar brownstone, and the privilege of her early life. “But what of it?” the article’s author, Boris Kachka, writes. “Authors through the ages have been well-off and well connected.” He goes on to note that Krauss thinks that “the writer’s biography” is “irrelevant at best.”
People, this is like white people saying that color doesn’t matter. Privilege is only irrelevant if you have it.
I won’t even get into how good-looking all these young writers are, especially the women.
But I will note that I am planning to expand my reading in regard to these issues. Perhaps I will even read B. R. Myers’s A Reader’s Manifesto, perhaps even The Communist Manifesto to which its title refers. Myers’s goal is to promote genre fiction over elite literary work, and there is nothing I despise more than the lurid fantasy novels that my students seem to love so much or the turgid prose and sexist characters in so much science fiction. I have no idea how to reconcile all these conflicts—I love literary fiction and nonfiction and poetry, I teach it to my students, and it’s where my heart is, but I’m starting to think that in the lower end of the creative writing world—itself a very privileged place by some standards, and where I live—maybe it makes sense to also advise my students to turn to genre writing, barring premier grad school options or medical school. It’s the place where our students, especially our MFA students, might actually have a chance. At UCF, we have even a couple of faculty members who write genre fiction. The idea of this shift makes my skin crawl, but I may be a snob in beggar’s clothing.
The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Father: statistics prof at University of Nigeria
Mother: University registrar
bachelor’s communications/political science, Eastern Connecticut State U
MFA Johns Hopkins
MA (African studies) Yale
Father: airline pilot
bachelor’s English University of FL
MD Eastern VA Medical School
studied Harvard Divinity School
[immigrated from Peru age 3]
bachelor’s anthropology Columbia
[immigrated from Latvia to Canada age 6]
bachelor’s English McGill
MFA University Southern California
Father: stockbroker for Prudential, investment company owner
bachelor’s English & Philosophy Iowa
MFA UC Irvine
Jonathan Safran Foer
Mother: president of public relations company
bachelor’s philosophy Princeton University
[no MFA but did undergrad thesis with Joyce Carol Oates]
[her wedding announcement lists John Lithgow as her godfather]
Father: TV screenplay writer
Mother: ? [career not listed in wedding announcement, though groom’s mother’s is]
bachelor’s Harvard University
MFA New York University
Father: professor of meteorology
Mother: computer programmer at National Severe Storms Laboratory
bachelor’s English Princeton University
MD Mount Sinai School of Medicine
MFA Columbia University
Grandfather: Ran Tel Aviv branch of Bulova
“the isolated splendor of her Bauhaus childhood home”, garden designed by “an Olmsted”
Father: orthopedic surgeon
bachelor’s English/creative writing Stanford University
MA art history Oxford University/Courtauld Institute
[“grew up in a two-room apartment in Beijing with her mother, father, grandfather, and sister”; parents don’t speak English; immigrated to U.S. age 24]
bachelor’s science Peking University
MS immunology Iowa
[born in Ethiopia; immigrated to Peoria (later Forest Park, IL) at age 2]
Father: worked for Ethiopian Airlines, then worked at Caterpillar factory headquarters (“hope of rising to middle-class comfort”)
attended “elite Roman Catholic high school”
bachelor’s English Georgetown University
MFA Columbia University
[grew up in “working class” neighborhood]
Father: electrician/college biology instructor
bachelor’s English Cornell University
no MFA, but fellowship at Michener Center for Writers in Austin
[writes about working class people, but is secretive about her past]
bachelor’s voice Berea College [“a tuition-free labor college for students from poor and working-class backgrounds in Appalachia”]
master’s Harvard Divinity School
[born in Yugoslavia, moved to Cyprus & Cairo following grandfather’s job at age 7, then to U.S. at age 12 or 13]
Grandfather: aviation engineer
Father: not mentioned
bachelor’s University of Southern California
MFA Cornell University
Father: bar & lounge owner
Mother: worked for Social Security Administration
BA Yale University
MA Johns Hopkins University
Stegner Fellowship Standford University
[notes that she finished her MFA with a lot of student debt]
Father: Vietnam veteran
Mother: real estate attorney
bachelor’s Northwestern University
MFA Columbia University
[claims to have been working class, parents wouldn’t have money to send him to college]
bachelor’s St. John’s College, New Mexico
born in Leningrad
Father: engineer in a LOMO camera factory
bachelor’s Oberlin College
MFA Hunter College of CUNY
Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum
Father: academic physician
bachelor’s Brown University
BA anthropology & sociology Wesleyan University
MFA Columbia University