Monday, September 6, 2010

More on Novels and the World of Work

Awhile back I posted some ruminations on whether recent literary fiction has much to say about work. It wasn't my own observation that literary fiction tends to bypass work, and I hadn't previously thought much about it, but my literary friends are showing a tendency to disagree with the notion that literary fiction does not deal with work. Betty Dietz, for example, writes:
I'm not so sure that work has fallen out of favor in novels over the past twenty years. I think the opposite is true. I think that in literature now more characters are engaged in specific jobs and that their employment is used as theme, for character development or, at the least, as an important point of reference on which the story is built. Off the top of my head and from the stack of most recently read novels, I've thought of several books that use work as an integral part of their character and/or thematic development. In Stoner, John Williams immerses his protagonists in academia (the University of Missouri in Columbia). A Summons to Memphis, by Peter Taylor, is the story about a rare book collector and editor who is the son of a lawyer, and the brother of two sisters who are real estate managers. In Summertime, by J.M. Coetzee, the story is told by a biographer researching a book about the writer John Coetzee who has died--it's a fictional autobiography. The researcher interviews five people and each of these people have specific jobs that are relevant to the telling of the story. Coetzee's Disgrace is about an academic who loses his job because of a scandal involving one of his students. The Stain by Phillip Roth is also about an academic. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is about Thomas Cromwell, a lawyer who worked his way up from being the son of a blacksmith to being the chief adviser to Henry VIII. The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer is about a businessman who spends his weekends and holidays being a gentleman farmer in South Africa. A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry drags us through the trenches with a WWI soldier.

I could think of more, but that's enough. Work, I think, is an important component of contemporary literature[...]

It must be confessed that I have not read a single one of these novels; I am hoping that I'll have somewhat more time to read fiction in the coming years, given that graduate school is over. The fact that Betty has read these is a recommendation in itself. In any case, perhaps the essay upon which I originally commented drew on an idiosyncratic pool of novels. Further thoughts from readers are encouraged.


  1. If you have a chance, check out Wolf Hall - out of the 75 book I've read so far this year, it is definitely my top choice!

  2. I don’t read a lot of contemporary novels, but the three I can remember reading in the last cou0ple of years all dealt with work. One was David Malouf's wonderful novel Ransom. The main character is King Priam of Troy and it deals at length with his job, being king of Troy. I said being king of Troy rather than ruling Troy because the novel is in substantial part about how Priam learns to shuck his persona as king. In that way it's kind of Jungian. The second is Joseph O’Neil’s not so good novel Netherland, where the work of the POV, a Wall Street analyst, of another character who has sort of a Gatsby role, a numbers runner and cricket promoter, and of the POV’s wife is much discussed. The third is Geoff Dyer’s generally tacky effort Geoff in Venice and Death in Varanasi. In the Venice part the POV’s occupation, a fine art journalist, is constantly before the reader.