Saturday, February 20, 2010

How Do Fictional Characters Earn a Living, Anyway?

The author John Lanchester observes that very little fiction these days deals with work. Back in the nineteenth century, on the other hand, quite a bit of fiction did. Lanchester notes that the oeuvres of Dickens, Melville, Tolstoy, Mark Twain, and other writers of the time have a great deal to say about the working lives of the characters, whereas today one mainly gets a sense of characters' work in police procedurals and women's popular fiction.

This intrigued me. I hadn't really thought about it, other than to occasionally ponder my own characters' relationship with work, which has largely had to do with whether their work (if mentioned at all) was personally meaningful or merely a means of support. This is similar to how Lanchester describes women's popular fiction, despite my not being a writer of that (rather broad) genre. Is this because I'm female? Surely women aren't more concerned than men about whether their work is meaningful. Still, I've never thrown work and employment into fiction purely on the grounds that nearly everyone 16-70 or so works in some fashion (paid or not) unless unable to. It has to bear some relation to the story.

Lanchester thinks that the general lack of literary fiction dealing with work is due to the complex nature of so much of what we do for a living these days. He says:

"Television can give us a cartoon version of a barrister’s work, or a forensic scientist’s work, or a doctor’s work; for a fuller and more real version, the writer would have to do a huge amount of explanation of the complex realities of their different working lives. But you can’t explain in fiction, not like that and not at the necessary length."

There's some truth to that. We don't generally want great big long explanations about much of anything in our fiction these days; we don't even usually want descriptions of rooms or scenery to go on for more than a sentence or two. Yet people do like to learn about things and to find out details. To quote Lanchester again,

"I’d been reading about how most countries used to drive on the left, because it’s the logical side to get on a horse for right-handed people, and about how almost all the countries that still drive on the left had a strong British influence and are islands. I was mulling over these things and then it struck me: this couldn’t go in a novel. A novel with a disquisition on the difference between driving on the left and on the right would be… well, let’s just say I wouldn’t be in a hurry to read it."

Here, I think Lanchester isn't reckoning on the ways in which a crafty novelist could incorporate the said disquisition. It could be done quite interestingly, given the right story and characters. Someone like Jaroslav Hašek's Švejk could have discoursed on it most amusingly. Hašek wasn't exactly the average modern novelist, but I'll bet you that I too could get a character to expound on the topic without boring readers to tears. (All right, I don't think I'm the average novelist either.) I think that a major reason we don't have many literary novels today dealing with people's working lives is that writers are hesitant to write about either work they've actually done themselves or work they've had no personal experience of. I don't think fiction is really devoid of descriptions of the kinds of entry-level jobs most of us have had, but we don't usually (I think) write about our office jobs, factory jobs, or academic jobs. If we're still in those jobs, we tend to worry what might happen to us if the book is a success (if it's a short story, there's little cause to worry since no one from work is likely to discover it, but short fiction offers less scope for writing about work). Christina Stead's House of All Nations was, if I remember correctly, written while she was working in banking but not published until later. I don't think most people would have the nerve to publish something like that while relying on a paycheck from the source of the material.

Lanchester states:

"The world is full of interesting things that don’t fit inside traditional fictional forms. That is because a novel has to seem true. It doesn’t have to be factually or literally true and the kind of truth it seeks can be fantastical, wild, unearthly, illogical, dreamlike, incoherent, even mad — but it does have to feel true."

This is indeed the case, but I think that usually one has to have a good (often current) sense of a job or workplace in order to convey that feeling of truth. I suspect writers often block out the wonderful weird details of our recollections of jobs past because, of course, we feel that writing is our real job.


  1. Interesting. I’m not sure I agree with the premise. First of all, though it’s not contemporary, the most occupational novel of all, Moby Dick, is American. I don’t actually read that many contemporary American novels, but the last three I read had lots of job stuff. Netherlands had lots of stuff about banking, running the numbers, and running a professional cricket club, In Home the main characters is secretive about his work, but we hear lots about his father’s work as a minister and some about his sisters work as a school teacher. Bel Canto has lots about singing opera, being a translator, being a terrorist, and some other stuff.
    I’m reminded that recently I read the awkward Age by Henry James. James is notoriously reticent about his characters’ work, but in this novel one of the characters’ job title appears. He is Minister for Lakes and Rivers. I have not read all of Henry James, but I’m reasonably confident it is the only job title that appears.

  2. I don't actually read enough contemporary fiction to assess the accuracy of the underlying assumption--you're in a better position to know on that. We may simply be getting Lanchester's personal experience of recent literary fiction. One thing I've noticed is that there seems to be a rise in literary fiction set in other historical periods. Then again, that may be what I've been drawn to pick up.

    Still, I thought the subject of work-in-fiction was pretty interesting to consider, especially as it's important for some of my writing yet isn't that important for some of my other projects. There's quite a bit of work in the novel I was telling you about in December, but two of the characters are self-employed and the protagonist wishes she was, so it's not exactly standard work stuff.

  3. Fictional characters earn a living at fictional jobs, of course. The money that they earn is fictional as well - but then again, so are the taxes! ;o)