The Suburbia Genre

Ian Stansel wonders why his own experience in the suburbs didn’t match the portraits found in the novels of Richard Yates, John Updike and Richard Ford:

My streets in my suburbs were less affluent. There were many single parents. There were large minority and recent immigrant populations. There was frequent turnover in those rental townhouses and apartments, people moving either up or down the socioeconomic ladder, holding fast to what they had and hoping for better days ahead. There weren’t a lot of cocktail parties in my suburbs.

This is all to say that while I love these books, when I look at the genre of suburban fiction—particularly the suburban novel—I find a significant lacuna. The fact is that the American suburbs are diverse and complex in ways that contemporary novels rarely acknowledge. According to 2010 census data, the suburbs are home to more minorities, especially Hispanics and African-Americans, than ever. The ‘burbs are also older, as baby boomers age and remain in place while their children move to the cities.

And perhaps most significantly, the median income for families in the suburbs has dropped. According to the Brookings Institute, even before the housing/economic crisis of 2008, the percentage of suburbanites considered poor has grown by 25% just since the turn of the 21st century, which makes suburban areas home to a greater increase in poverty than cities.

The source of the disconnect:

When we talk about the suburban novel we are usually talking about books about suburbia, rather than about the actual suburbs. This seems to be an important distinction to keep in mind. The suburbs evolve. They grow and shrink. Their populations change, and with these changes so do the cultures of these towns. The suburbs are full of people.

Suburbia, on the other hand, is a static construct. It is more idea than place. It is populated by notions and types. It is homogenous and, generally, economically secure. And it is only when a book works on some level as a reaction to this construct of suburbia that we tend to think of it as a suburban novel. Suburbia has been frozen in time, so the settings of these volumes resemble more the suburbs of past decades than those of today.