Where are the writers who seek artistic authenticity in poverty?

Fiction must be aware of the income level of its characters because wealthy characters can buy and do more stuff, like fly helicopters, travel the world, wear expensive clothing, and jump into pools full of Jell-O. Fiction loves wealth because it gives the reader a rare glimpse into an unseen world.

Robert McCrum asks where are the writers “who seek artistic authenticity in poverty?”

Prices are collapsing, and the winds of austerity whistle around the world. But writers show no sign of exploring deprivation or exigency.

It used not to be this way. I’ve been reading a new book about Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. Frederick Turner’s Renegade identifies the obsessive way in which Miller, like several writers of his generation, sought artistic authenticity in deprivation, poverty and insufficiency…

Where are the nomads now? Today, if a writer gets his or her shoes dirty, it’s as likely to be crossing a muddy field at the Hay festival, or getting caught in a tropical downpour in Galle or Jaipur. Whatever happened to the avant garde?

British references aside, I like his question. I don’t have an answer, but if someone does, I’d like to know. Or maybe an argument against his claim.

Poverty, at a surface level, seems to constrain and constrict the plot. You have to get close to dirt because all poverty is dirty. And you can’t drink the tap water and you have to take public transportation or ride a bike if your character is street smart enough to steal one and not get caught. And you always smell. And even though you don’t have much money drugs are easy to come by. And everyone is selling their bodies. And there is lots of stinky sweaty sex scenes. Because poor people don’t shower but hump like rabbits and can’t afford birth control so there’s always kids popping out.

Blimey, as the British say.

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18 thoughts on “Where are the writers who seek artistic authenticity in poverty?

  1. Well I’m living the life of an impoverished writer does that count! Its on purpose, I find living in the basics far more romantic and you gain much more experience.. Although Henry Miller did have lots of rich friends and Anais Ninn supported him loads, he often relied on that.. Sadly for me I have no Anais Ninn.

    I’m still seeking out that perfect hovel paris apartment.. and I’ve got the nomad thing going on, next mission a trip in a gyspy caravan through Southern Ireland, that would be a dream!

    Re Avant Guard, I think its hard, we have avant garde poetry in Brighton but its not the same – Times have changed, writers see to want the glory and money – I wish I was in 1920’s or even when the Romantic Poets were around because they lived lifes and there was a big writing community and it was just about money it was about being able to get your idea out there into the big wide world.

    SO then after all that what is the problem, Profit, Money, Wealth its not real and it doesn’t belong in the world (and its screwing up Art!)

    PS not all poverty is dirty – you know its real and I love the real life people living out there trying to survive thats human nature.

  2. ‘I mean it wasn’t all about money for the romantics it was the result of a many big revolutions! ‘

  3. I’m thinking it’s just a little too real for many…and they’re afraid if they write about it…they’ll have to go do research…;)

  4. It goes without saying that poverty is complicated. And the bigger picture and global economy and all that requires the “haves” to take more responsibility. Honestly, I think that’s a part of why Hunger Games resonated with folks. The book looks at some of the issues without “naming any names.” It’s no coincidence that the folks living illustrious, unexamined lives in the Capital bore a striking resemblance to Americans… Maybe we’re only ready for the dystopic mirror at this point.

  5. I actually just noticed this in my writing, that I made my character well off. So I vowed that my next book, which will be dystopian in nature, will focus more on the skills the poor have that allow them to survive longer in crisis.

  6. I think it depends a lot on who we’re writing for. Fiction gives us the means to escape. Poverty can be gritty, heartwrenching and horribly authentic, but not everyone wants to go there.

  7. Honestly, I read a lot of epic and high fantasy, and the worlds range from elaborate and rich, focusing on the wealthy, to simple and/or struggling, focusing on adventure and all that. I think everyone wants to fancy armor, the super-special-awesome abilities and wealth and adventure because it’s not what we have here, and never can. Poverty, however, is here and too close for comfort. Most don’t want to read a book solely based in poverty, though many characters can come out of poverty.

    But that was a total ramble.

    • I appreciate the ramble because I’m interested and there’s more fiction out there than I can read. I just can’t help but think there’s so much more beauty in the tragedy of the poor man/woman than of the rich. Maybe people don’t want to read about it, but that doesn’t mean writer’s shouldn’t write about it. We sometimes have to write what people don’t want to hear.

  8. I agree with you, actually. I think writers should show multiple ways of life, as well as the conflicts of the world we live in, but in ways that aren’t oppressive, but thought-provoking. If that makes any sense.

  9. This is a really interesting discussion and posting.
    Maybe it’s the Zeitgeist? Is it just a specific aesthetic of specific postwar generations (1930’s writers in the article, Kerouac, etc) or of 19th-century Bohemianism (like Rimbaud)? Is it about growing up (or not) in comfortable circumstances? Is it that Bohemianism is pretty expensive and garrets are called penthouses these days?
    I’ve worked with very poor communities in Central Asia and Latin America and there wasn’t much space for creativity, but I also met an amazing artist on a hillside in South Bogotá.
    I like the question a lot and do agree with the thrust behind it, but McCrum seems to suppose a specific reaction to austerity (I happen to like a lot of what he’s missing). But is something else any more or less authentic? Renaissance artists and poets weren’t working in the garret, they had patronage. Virginia Woolf thought good writing came with 500 a year and a room of one’s own. Are they not authentic? Not sure…

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