Even when writing fiction, the stories that are told are inevitably attached to that writer’s perceived reality and observations of the world around them. There has been a common theme that has been permeating fiction books for the last couple of decades, and it hints towards a real problem facing the foundational structure of our society. The problem surfaces in fiction books as plot points, subplots, protagonists, and motives related to the main character’s student loan debt.
Student loan debt is a real problem in our country on multiple levels for borrowers. The first of which is the length of time that it takes to clear yourself from this debt. Borrowers often either don’t complete the degree they were attempting to obtain, or they complete the degree, but it doesn’t provide them with an opportunity in their field of study.
Americans currently owe $1.7 trillion dollars in student loan debt, and that number is steadily rising. Even President Biden’s student loan forgiveness program which was supposed to wipe out $300 billion, only amounts to just 1/6th of the total debt.
That means there is still 83.33% of the debt still out there waiting to be collected. Unless you are the offspring of a wealthy family who was able to pay for your education, the reality is that you, along with your siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles, are likely dealing with a sizable amount of student loan debt.
Some prominent literary examples of this national crisis include the Book The Glass Hotel (2020). In the book, a young female bartender named Vincent starts a relationship with a Ponzi scheme billionaire and ponders the question of whether she should be flying off for a romantic getaway to Nice or if she should be attending college. The author Emily St. John Mandel writes that “knowing that a college degree might change your life. A willingness to commit to the terrifying weight of student loans.”
According to the New York Times, “In the United States, federal student loans were first issued in 1958 in response to the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik. The government, anxious that the country was falling behind in science, held out student loans as an incentive for Americans to specialize in engineering and math.” St. John Mandel also comments on Vincent’s rationale to not go to school since all her waitress co-workers went and got their degrees and they are back at home living with their parents and working the same job as she is to pay those loans off.
Another example is Three Rooms (2021), written by Jo Hamya. In the story, the main character graduated with a degree in English, and her biggest desire is to throw a dinner party. But that is a pipedream because she can’t pay back her loans while paying her rent for the loft that she has in London because of the meager wages the magazine she is working for pays her.
In the book, she specifically says, “it seemed ridiculous to concede that I had accumulated substantial debt and a few degrees so that I might contractually labor for the sake of having two free days a week in which to cook a meal in a kitchen I could not actually afford to own, for a small crowd of people my age who spent their lives doing the same.”
Furthermore, in Lee Conell’s The Party Upstairs (2020) student loan debt prevents the lead character from being able to take an internship in her field of study because it’s unpaid, and she can’t afford to not get paid for any length of time in order to survive. The student loan debt theme also acts as a catalyst in other fiction works by causing the protagonists to do something shifty or criminal to attempt to get their debt paid off which then causes them a whole new set of problems.
Overall, what we do know is art imitates life, and for many of these authors these struggles are happening around them and even to them at this very moment. When hardships like that occur for writers, then you can bet that it infiltrates their artistic expression and, in this case, makes it right out onto the pages of these fiction books.