What is ‘middle class’?

I’ve recently watched the three episodes of ‘In the Best Possible Taste’ in which Grayson Perry, a British artist, spends time with each of the different ‘taste tribes’ of the classes in Britain, trying to determine what defines each class. The result is a series of tapestries inspired by William Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress and various pieces of religious art. (More about ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ here.) After living in the UK for four years, I’m still negotiating what it means to live in a country that actually has a class system. When you say someone is ‘working class’ or ‘middle class’ or ‘upper class’, you mean something specific. But no such class system exists in the United States.

Which makes me wonder: What do American politicians mean when they say they are ‘standing up for the middle class’? More specifically, who are they talking about?

The term ‘middle class’ assumes that there is something for it to be in the ‘middle’ of: presumably a lower and an upper class. Do such classes exist in the US, and who are they?

I want to know by what we are defining ‘class’. Is it income? Education? Taste? It seems that pretty much everyone seems to identify themselves as ‘middle class’ in the U.S. Therefore, it can’t be defined purely by economic status, because people of different incomes reflect similar tastes and identify as ‘middle class’. According to Grayson Perry, class is defined by taste more than anything else: not how much money you have, but how you spend your money, what you spend it on, how you display your wealth. Middle class in Britain, according to Perry, is mostly defined by angst, a concern to prove oneself, that one belongs to the middle class and deserves to be there, to define oneself against the working class.

Perry’s argument that taste is what defines class is a convincing one, however, I don’t think the British middle class concern for defining oneself as not working class quite translates across the Atlantic. There is not quite the equivalent to a working class. We have ‘blue collar’, but again, what does that mean? What defines ‘blue collar’?

And, thinking of all these questions about class, when politicians say they are ‘standing up for the middle class’, I want to ask: ‘But who are the other classes? Who are standing up for them?’ Particularly the ‘blue collar/working class/lower class’. Do they exist? Who are they?

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Five books about me

The most recent book I have read is unpublished, and so I will not review it. Some time ago a friend of mine mentioned how when she and her now-husband were dating, she gave him a list of five books that he should read in order to understand her better. Since then I have been thinking: what five books would I recommend to someone to understand me?

1. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. This book changed my life. I know of no other book that wrestles so earnestly, passionately, and sincerely with faith and disbelief, human interaction, and where the individual fits in the universe. This is a beautifully and lyrically written novel about a group of sophisticated, highly intelligent, sensitive, and compassionate people who make terrible, unwitting mistakes. Also, it’s about Jesuits in space. What more could you want?

2. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. In my heart of hearts I am secretly an Odonian. I would that we had no government; that humans lived together in an ambiguous utopia, having everything in common and being part of a social organism. This novel both appeals to and challenges my sense of idealism. In this novel we see the worlds of Anarres and Urras through Shevek’s eyes, a philosopher theoretical physicist, an anarchist. This novel is perfect and balanced in its prose, in its structure. This book challenges me to live more simply: ‘Excess is excrement.’

3. My Daniel by Pan Conrad. I remember my mother reading this book to me as a child when we lived in Nebraska. Though being one of my favourite childhood books, when I read it again as an adult I was surprised by how sad a story it is. This is a book about a young girl and her older brother in the prairies of Nebraska and how they find dinosaur bones on their farm. Something about the dry earth — in the book, it hadn’t rained in three years — something about the plains and the fury of a thunderstorm… This book has rooted itself in my consciousness, even if I can’t quite explain how or why.**

4. The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. A friend recommended this book to me by saying Aerin is a lot like me. Or I am a lot like Aerin. As it is, Aerin-sol is a princess who, through her own stubbornness, will, and wit, carves a place for herself in her father’s court. She is resourceful and intelligent. She tames a warhorse who had gone wild. She is a princess who fights dragons. She is a princess who, on the brink of death, saves all. Aerin also has red hair, and it was her I had in mind when I wrote about my own red-haired princess, Princess Agnes in The Golden Crab. I take the comparison with Aerin as a tremendous compliment.

5. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo, translated by J.R.R. Tolkien. Ideally, I would recommend reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Orfeo in the original Middle English, but I will only ever expect that from a fellow medievalist. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is generally agreed to be one of the best (if not the best) Middle English Romance in terms of structure, form, and content. Sir Orfeo, however, is my favourite Middle English romance: it is Sir Orfeo that cemented my love of Middle English into more than passing interest and it is Sir Orfeo that inspired both my PhD thesis and my novel The Faerie King.

So those are my five books. What five books would you choose to define yourself? If not five, then what two or three?

** I replaced #3, previously The Perilous Gard, with My Daniel, shown above. The entry for The Perilous Gard is below the cut.

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