Jun 1, 2009

In Which Alain de Botton Informs Me That Nobody Is Doing the Thing That I've Been Doing for the Last 10 Years

In Sunday's Boston Globe, Alain de Botton says that "It's Time for an Ambitions New Literature of the Workplace," and laments that today's writers have stayed away from the office and thereby betrayed the legacy of the 19th-century greats:

It used to be a central ambition of novelists to capture the experience of working life. From Balzac to Zola, Dickens to Kafka, they evoked the dynamism and the beauty, the horror and the tedium of the workplace. Their books covered the same territory as is today featured at copious length in the financial pages of newspapers or in the breathless commentaries of the 24-hour newscasters, but their interest was not primarily financial. The goal was to convey the human side of commerce, where money is only one actor in a complex drama about our ambitions and reversals.

Yet today's writers seem to be losing their nerve. There has been an unfortunate inward turn. Attention, brilliant though it might be, too often falls merely on the domestic and the natural.


He goes on to suggest (I'm paraphrasing broadly) that one reason for this is writers' lack of job experience. Blame the workshops, sez I. And I also say: Mr. de Botton, there are a great many of us writers out here in the world who have had many and varied jobs and devote much of our creative energy to writing about work and how it interacts with other aspects of intellectual and emotional life.

However, I don't think it's entirely off the mark to suggest that the creme de la literary establishment isn't writing about work, but I would suggest that...well, this is where I would embark on a screed about literary backscratching and the pernicious influence of MFA-workshop mafias. Since lots of other people have already done that, I'll stick to a point of de Botton's that seems to me most germane: writers often don't work, and many of them never have. It's not that they couldn't write about work, it's that work isn't part of their experience (or, often, part of the experience of the people who taught them in their MFA workshops), so a kind of Brahmin literary culture has emerged in which the occasional appearance of an honest portrayal of working life draws surprised accolades. de Botton notes this:

When a new writer like Joshua Ferris does finally devote a novel to tracking the antics inside a corporation, the critical reaction is peculiar and telling: he attracts renown and praise for his courage in tackling the fresh and entirely unexpected subject matter of going to the office.


Here's where I want to point out again that there is a rich and varied literature of contemporary work. (The abovementioned Joshua Ferris, in fact, writes interestingly on the topic in this Guardian article.) I'm going to use myself as an example, since this is a blog and therefore my forum for self-aggrandizement. I quit counting a while back, but at one point I totaled up all of the places that had ever cut me a paycheck (for something other than writing) and it was about three dozen. I have:

flipped burgers
stocked shelves
waited tables (once, for a few months, on roller skates)
made pizzas
baked doughnuts
sold shoes, suits, electronics, books, bulk foods
driven a truck
worked as a courier
loaded trucks
acted in touring children's theater
clerked in liquor stores
taught high school
researched markets for a software company
processed mortgage applications
temped in a variety of cubicles

And some other things that I'm forgetting (or suppressing). So I write about work all the time. Often I can't really get a piece started until I've figured out what the characters do for a living. Of the forty-odd short stories I've published, I'm going to guess that at least half are about work in some way; same goes for Buyout, The Narrows, Mystery Hill...

So Alain de Botton, it is still "a central ambition of novelists to capture the experience of working life"--just not the novelists who are winning the Booker or getting on your reading lists. Maybe instead of an ambitious new literary movement, what we really need is an ambitious broadening of horizons on the part of literary taste-makers.
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