I have a friend, a young woman I’ll call C, who’s been passed over for two management positions in the last six months for reasons of class. By that I mean, passed over because A.) she didn’t have the proper educational background, and B.) she didn’t enough look the past. Those who got the jobs are fine individuals, but there’s not a doubt in my mind that C would’ve done better—in part because she’s far hungrier a person. She’s bright enough, and works twice as hard as anyone else.
Classism may be this nation’s last allowable prejudice—a prejudice that’s enacted with intense feeling and, often, ruthlessness. I know this from experience. Good “liberal” people who wouldn’t think of behaving in a racist manner—at least not publicly—are utterly scornful of lower caste members of their own race. They’re free to indulge their true feelings toward anyone they perceive as beneath them.
In no area of American life does caste play a greater role than in today’s established literary scene. Think I’m wrong? Examine those who receive nominations for National Book Awards, NEA grants, and/or lavish media publicity, and you’ll find a preponderance of graduates from elite universities, chiefly but not exclusively from the Ivy League. Hear of a hyped writer—Teddy Wayne, say—with reviews in major publication after major publication, along with awards and grants, and likely as not the person will be from Brown, or Columbia, or in Wayne’s case, Harvard. It’s how the country operates. Connections and clubbiness. (The area of politics is little better—this year we have a contest of Harvard versus Harvard.)
Now, it could be that the literary stars from the Ivy league truly are as good as their press clippings say they are. Curiously, though—as I pointed out about Ben Marcus—their book sales are seldom if ever commensurate with the amount of publicity they receive. It could be they’re simply more adept at either gaming the system, or writing exactly according to their professors’ specifications. Conformity and obedience could be reasons why they went to, and graduated from, the “best” schools in the first place. (Though writers as diverse as Charles Murray and Paul Krugman have demonstrated with strong evidence that what college one attends is still largely a product of caste.)
Compounding matters, the staffs of the leading mainstream magazines—like Vanity Fair and The New Yorker—and leading websites—Salon and Slate—which cover literature are made up of graduates from the same dozen or so elite universities. Their bias is toward writers who think and sound like themselves.
Which means, writing styles like fashionable clothes. The right “look” is important. Clarity of style and thought is the last thing they want. Their goal is to distinguish themselves from the mob.
Nowhere is caste bias more prevalent than at the two trendiest, highest profile literary magazines/movements: The Believer and n+1. The difference between them is that one group is biased more toward Columbia, the other, Harvard and Yale. Do I exaggerate their importance? Not when one looks at the advances and publicity their writers and fellow travelers receive. Their writers extend through the entire system, found in any and all the major organs of the New York-based scene, whether The New Yorker, or New York Times Book Review, or Magazine, or New York Review of Books, or Salon or Slate. In a sense, all one big happy family.
Many writers of course exist on the margins of this clubby circle. They are most certain of all to do nothing to compromise their chances; will do or say nothing to offend the big guys.
The greatest irony is that most of the chief figures of this scene, from Dave Eggers to Jonathan Franzen to Keith Gessen, place themselves prominently and vociferously on the Left end of the political spectrum. Yet every fact of their careers and lives is an opposition to this. In their own field, the realm of literature, they’re reactionaries. The Jekyll/Hyde contradiction escapes them.