So it helps to be working class -- on paper. And that's where Jim Daniels, the Jem Casey of Pittsburgh PA, comes into the story.
Jim Daniel was the topic of one of these Calls for Papers. Here's the text which set me off:
CFP: Call for critical-papers on working class poet Jim Daniels. Call for critical-papers on working class poet and short story writer Jim Daniels for a panel presentation at the American Language Association Conference in Long Beach, CA. Presenters should also be creative writers who can participate in a reading at the conference, as well as a discussion on Daniels' influence and what it means to be a working class writer. Panel presentations will be included in a book proposal on Daniels' work. 500 word abstracts, three poems and brief paragraph bio must be received by Jan 20. Put everything in the body of the email.
Prof of English Renny Christopher of California State University, Stanislaus, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sean Thomas Dougherty, English Dept, Penn State Erie, SUD1@PSU.EDU
I had to see what a "working-class poet" was, because it was such a lame oxymoron. Not just an oxymoron: a juxtaposition of two terms which were not only mutually exclusive but non-referential in themselves.
"Working class"? What would that mean in America in 2002? That term had been showing up in many of the CFPs lately, and it had to mean something career-centered and fake; that's what that language was for. And it did. God, it did.
Briefly put: "working-class" in the context of contemporary academic "discourse" means "white but claiming victimhood."
Not that there aren't white victims. Fuck yes. Tens of millions -- and that's just the US. But they can't deploy their victimhood as a self-promotion device. The ability to do so means that the user is not what he or she claims to be; thus the use of the self-description "working-class" implies its inapplicability.
If you can use it, you ain't it. That's the vile aspect of this self-designation.
I saw it deployed over and over, and always by the sly against the honorable, or the sly against the trusting, or the simple, or the brave. At Berkeley in the late 80s I had these two students: Dave Olenszuck, a loud white guy from Detroit, a real "working-class and proud of it" careerist, and a black woman named LaDonna Simmons. They both wanted to get into law school. (Everybody wanted to get into law school.) And neither of them had the sort of prose style which would allow them to get A's at Berkeley. Not without some help.
The obvious option was to claim handicap. Dave started his campaign early, and loudly. He yelled every hard-luck story he could, to anyone in the room. He was crazy in a useful way, one of those ADD kids who keep the mania long enough for it to become an asset. His stories were impressive: how his dad shot him once with a pellet gun when he got home at 5 am, how he was a tank driver in the Army, how he used to snatch handfuls of crack out of the hands of dealers who came up to his buddy's car.
LaDonna didn't tell her stories. I didn't know she had any till one day when Dave was in my office telling one of his Detroit stories, about how he was transferred to Family Care Services after his dad kicked him out. LaDonna said, "You mean Family Foster Care." Dave squinted at her and said, "Whoa!" like someone had topped his kung fu moves. LaDonna didn't say anything more, but something unprecedented happened: Dave shut up. And left without being pushed.
LaDonna started talking to me after that; Dave, of course, never stopped. Ever. I was wary of LaDonna's stories because I thought that they, like Dave's -- like everybody else's -- were material for a law school application. But I had to admit they were very sad -- which many people's hardship stories weren't. Many were like boasts. LaDonna's weren't; they were sad. She was sad about them, not proud. She hung around me, I realized, because I was SO middle-class that it was a relief for her. It was something she actually...wanted. Would have wanted.