The Stories We Tell About Class

The Stories We Tell About Class

A conversation with Eula Biss about the nature of work, leisure, consumption, and her new book Having and Being Had.


In one story commonly told by the United States, homeownership promises the good life. A white picket fence, sure, but also a washing machine, health insurance, family dinners, and a retirement account. In her new book, Having and Being Had, Eula Biss scrutinizes the persistence of this promise by reflecting on her affluence. “When I could pass as permanent,” she writes, “I bought a house.” But permanence, she quickly learns, has its own set of insecurities, alienations, and self-delusions. Much like homeownership, the stories we tell about money keep America bound to capitalism.

While Biss’s previous works—On Immunity, Notes From No Man’s Land, and The Balloonists—interrogate the invisible contracts of race and gender, Having and Being Had explores the nature of work, leisure, investment, and consumption. The question embedded in the book’s title (How does what we own own us?) remains, not fully resolved by the series of short essays that further prod: What happens when the things that provide us with comfort are also the things that make the world unlivable? (Perusing a furniture store, Biss writes, “I want everything and nothing”—a deflated desire that reappears throughout the book.)

The book’s focus on everyday life—a game of Monopoly, weekend yard work, new Ikea furniture—is undergirded by an inquiry into history, literature, and economics. In one section, Biss writes about her real estate agent, who is “forbidden by law” to discuss demographics while selling homes in a neighborhood where redlining once “translated race into property value.” In another, she reintroduces Virginia Woolf as both literary model and cautionary tale. Elsewhere, she surveys how slavery and marriage made people into objects.

If writing about income inequality often orients toward big-picture prescriptives, then Having and Being Had invests in transparency and self-scrutiny. Published in the face of massive state failure and a surge in mutual aid projects across the country, the book suggests that talking about class—and specifically class privilege—is a necessary step in redistributing wealth and building equitable communities.

I talked to Biss about precarity, the anti-capitalist nature of poetry, and whether there’s any way out of this. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

—Taliah Mancini

Taliah Mancini: You suggest that the house is wrapped up in a cult of safety, permanence, and security. What does one have to trade to become part of this cult?

Eula Biss: Part of what I traded away was a certain degree of control over my own time. In order for me to buy a house, I had to be willing to be locked into my job in a way that I had not been before. Many people trade away flexibility and freedom when they enter that cult, and I think some people leave the cult because they want to live in a different way. This is one of the things I wrestled with in this book. I don’t necessarily believe in homeownership as a financial strategy or a wealth-building mechanism, but people who, for various reasons, don’t own their houses are disadvantaged in terms of building wealth and passing on wealth to their children. And that has ramifications in terms of some very basic forms of security. This is one of the things that make me angry about our system. You actually have to be quite wealthy to have very basic kinds of stability—to know that your health care is covered, your child’s education will be covered, that your retirement will be covered. We’d like to imagine that those are middle-class givens, but they aren’t.

TM: Throughout, you talk about the phenomenon of wealthier people downplaying their wealth. Was writing this book a declaration against this type of self-deception?

EB: It was not just a declaration but a tool to actively work myself out of that deception. I didn’t think that I was lying to myself about money or my own social power, but once I got into the writing, I realized that I had been engaged in self-deception and that many people around me were. That self-deception is not really a personal view so much as it makes possible our comfort with the entire system. It’s one thing to lie to yourself, but it’s another thing to lie to yourself in a way that makes a system of inequality run more smoothly. If upper-middle-class people believe ourselves to be more financially strapped than we are, we don’t feel in the position to engage in wealth distribution efforts, right? This self-deception has consequences for policy-making and the way that people vote and the way that people engage with giving. One surprising thing that I found while doing research for this book is that the higher your income is, the less you’re likely you are to give away. That pattern suggests that the wealthier we become, the stingier we become, and part of that has to do with the psychology of our particular kind of capitalism that really encourages us to feel like we never have enough and that we always need more.

TM: Metaphors are central to your thinking about capitalism. You talk about consumption as a metaphor for destruction, for example, and there’s the metaphor of peeling paint off your walls. I’m interested in how you used metaphor in this book differently from in your past work.

EB: I was very drawn, in this work, to work directly with metaphor without actually talking about metaphor. My last book, On Immunity, dealt with metaphor, but I was also talking about metaphor. In this work I wanted to circle back to a mode of writing that I engaged in much earlier in my career, like in my first book, which was much closer to poetry than my most recent. I know not everyone is going to read the book this way, but there really isn’t a single noun or exchange or event that isn’t functioning as metaphor. For me, the certain repeated elements that are pretty subtle—like the turkey that my next-door neighbor refuses and then the holiday turkey I cook in my house—have symbolic significance. Though as much as On Immunity was about metaphor, this book is about internalized contradictions. Middle-class life is in certain ways defined by contradiction.

Kudzu, for instance, comes up a number of times throughout the book and in different contexts and for different reasons. I was thinking about the insidiousness of this system, and this type of kudzu grows over other plants and strangles them, strangles out other ways of being or thinking. Metaphor in this book was meant to be a primary tool for meaning-making and understanding, and all of these details from my life, pretty much every single one of them, is intended to be a symbol. A lot of the work of the book, then, was trying to harness those metaphors and test them, to think, “Is capitalism really like kudzu? What does this turkey symbolize? Is it middle-class excess? And what does it mean when my neighbor refuses it out of pride? And what does it mean when I serve it to my friends?” I know that there is a literal reading of it, but the literal read probably misses most of the more interesting things.

TM: I couldn’t help thinking of the works you cited—from Marx and Silvia Federici to Virginia Woolf and Joan Didion to Adam Smith and Anna Tsing—as a study of a knowledge economy. What was your process of finding and choosing texts like?

EB: That’s very much what it was. I was curious about what we collectively know about capitalism. It was a portrait not just of what kind of access I and the people around me had about information about our system but also the way that knowledge moves—that kind of gift economy of knowledge. I was partly trying to honor the gift economy that supports my work as a writer, this network of people who are informing me, connecting me, challenging me, sending me the readings. But if you look through the list of references at the end, there’s a real tilt to white cultural ephemera. The whiteness of my knowledge base is evidenced in that source list. It was a place where I was forced to reflect on how the whiteness of my social group was limiting my own knowledge base in various ways.

TM: It brings up the question of what white writers are for. Maybe more than being about a house, the book is about a certain type of life afforded by the creation of the legal and political category “white people.”

EB: Definitely. In some ways, this book is an extension of my previous work where I wrote about whiteness as a white person. I do think that in general, it’s harder to see whiteness from within it, but I also feel that it’s the responsibility of those of us who profit from this system of advantages to do the work of trying to see it. My hope in that work was, in trying to see this system that really does remain invisible to most white people and entirely visible to people of color, I could kind of model that process [of trying to see]. Similarly, it is the responsibility of those of us who have class advantages to interrogate those advantages and try to see them and not let them remain invisible or taken for granted. One of the challenges early in writing this book was trying to figure out how to make this way of life, which has been really normalized in our media and popular literature and movies, uncanny. To make strange these things that have been accepted as normal, everyday luxuries of this class position.

TM: At points you seem struck by how deeply invested we are in this normal, to the point that every other system looks impossible. In one section you even refer to John Berger’s observation that now art is inherently a form of property. Museums acquire paintings. But you also write that art can “unmake the world made by work.” How might art help us imagine new ways of living that aren’t centered on work?

EB: Art is interesting because it’s work that, for most people, doesn’t look like or function like other work. For most artists, art-making is unpaid. That alone puts it in a realm of things that are difficult, that take a lot of effort and time but are not compensated, like parenting. In our current society and economy, we tend to only support work that is financially compensated, and the higher the compensation, the more respect we have for the work. It doesn’t have to do with whether the work is essential or not, and this has been made abundantly exposed by the [coronavirus] pandemic. In a more rational economic system, the people who would be essential would be very well supported by our system. If you’re choosing to make art, you’re choosing to move outside a system of compensation.

Even just engaging in art-making, then, is a challenge to the system and not just a challenge to some of our preconceptions about what work is and what it has to be but also a challenge to the idea that profit is and should be what motivates people. This goes back to not being able to see out of capitalism—every other system looking strange or implausible or nostalgic. That’s maybe the saddest part about our situation. The way that our ability to even imagine another way of being has been constrained and limited. What’s exciting to me about some of David Graeber’s work, who I reference throughout the book, is his argument that the alternatives to capitalism are actually already here. We’re already living them. We just need to invest in them and build policies and economies around them. His argument is that it’s not impossible to imagine an alternative. People are already doing things that don’t follow the logic of capitalism all the time. That’s why art seems so full of promise, because communities of artists—especially artists who are in a position like poets, where there’s no money even for people who are very successful—can serve as a kind of model for how people might live and work outside the system that is based on profit motivation.

TM: I want to ask about the book’s ending. At one point, you tell your friend that this book has “no resolution,” and she responds, “The only way to end it would be to burn your house down.” Why end the book the way you do?

EB: One of the central problems of the book for me is this contradiction between my own comforts and my discomforts with those comforts. I want the comforts and securities afforded to me by capitalism, and I’m completely uncomfortable with the system that rewarded me those comforts. What disturbed me about my own economic privilege was that I was pretty attached to it. It points to a problem: my own investment in a system I know to be unjust. It’s an ethical problem, and it would be dishonest to imply some sort of resolution there.

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