Economic crisis and literature

This video is called Grapes of Wrath – I’ll Be There Speech (Tom Joad).

By Solomon Hughes in Britain:

Speaking Volumes

Friday 28th February 2014

Times of recession often inspire enduring works of radical fiction, writes SOLOMON HUGHES

So we’ve got a new recession, but the big question is, will we get any decent books from it?

The banking collapse and the economic crisis it sparked have torn apart people’s lives, throwing them out of houses and jobs or cutting wages.

Can’t we at least get a decent read from the pain?

Previous economic crises threw individuals, families, even whole nations into chaos.

But they have also thrown up some great novels.

Grapes of Wrath or Love On The Dole or Little Man What Now? were born from the Great Depression, but live on as important works of fiction.

I’d happily find a way out of the crisis even if it meant only having boring books to read.

But as prospects for stopping the 1 per cent from punishing the 99 per cent are a way away, we might as well look out for some great literature on the way.

I was prompted to write this by reading one early contender for a great crisis novel – The Spinning Heart, the 2013 debut book from by Donal Ryan.

I recommend it to all Morning Star readers. I’ll just put in a brief health warning when talking about great recession books. It does the author a small injury. Because these novels aren’t really written by “the recession,” they are written by individual authors, using their skills and hard work and experiences and lives.

I’m slightly insulting these writers by over-emphasising the impact of big social changes on their work, when the small hard work at the keyboard is what ultimately creates the novel. But I’m also saying they gave us something very important.

Novelists are trying to make stories that carry some kind of meaning out of the life around them and stick them on the page.

A deep economic crisis puts the big basic questions up high – how do we house and feed and clothe ourselves? Who eats and who goes hungry? Who do we work for and why?

These big questions worked their way through the pens and typewriters of some of our best writers.

This was especially true in the Great Depression. The US was growing as a nation, and producing new generations of writers when the Depression hit, so there was a big pool of talented writers facing the questions coming out of hard times.

They were also lifted by the wave of radicalism sweeping through the US in the New Deal years.

The 1930s US gave us an especially rich crop of radical books – Steinbeck is the most obvious and long-lasting writer from that bunch, but he is far from alone.

John Dos Passos‘s kaleidoscopic trilogy U.S.A. shows that books that treat the real world don’t have to be just “realistic.”

He created a collage of his nation from straight storytelling, stream-of-consciousness and poetic biography.

Steinbeck and Dos Passos were joined by many other authors, from “social novelists” to the black comedies of Nathanael West, wrestling with how people live in hard times.

The 1930s US was particularly rich for recession novels, but lesser downturns in smaller countries have produced great books.

James Kelman really hit his stride writing about ordinary folks’ lives on the dole or the dead-end jobs in Thatcher‘s recession.

Kelman mixed some of the common themes of social fiction – the realist, the demotic, the down-at-heel with an icy shard of Samuel Beckett-ish clarity.

I think Kelman probably inspired Irvine Welsh to a degree, although Welsh also writes with a kind of nihilistic comedy. His slapstick social realism still tells us something about the John Major recession of the ’90s and about how people live when there isn’t a lot on offer.

Which brings us back to now. As yet we haven’t had a rush of depression fiction.

I was slightly underwhelmed by John Lanchester‘s Capital. It somewhat self-consciously dealt with the housing crisis, but it is more about the boom than the bust and was a bit too good-humoured to have a real bite (his novel Mr Phillips, about an unemployed accountant, might sound like much less promising material, but is sharper).

So I was delighted to read Ryan’s The Spinning Heart. It brings to life a group of voices from the wreckage of Ireland’s crash.

Ireland’s housing boom was a bit different from that in Britain in that it did involve a large amount of new houses being built – that’s probably a better kind of boom, but it means the slump has littered Ireland with badly built, badly thought-out houses.

Ryan’s novel describes a small town facing life after the big property developer who gave everybody a job runs off, leaving them out of work and cheated in a number of ways.

Each chapter has a different narrator. Ryan has a great understanding of what the step from a crappy job to no job feels like and how the need to earn a crust works with your need to feel like a good mother or a good son or a good mate.

The characters talk like people you know, while saying something quite profound. Ryan has a great ear for the human voice and the human heart. I’m presenting it as a “social book,” but it is both demotic and poetic, showing a tremendous talent.

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