The serious business of literature
It’s all just a dream, babe,
A vacuum, a scheme, babe,
That sucks you into feelin’ like this.
-- Bob Dylan
The boom of the 1990s now feels exactly like Dylan’s song: a dream, a vacuum and a scheme. But the hangover from those years could not be more real, giving the markets splitting headaches and fall-down dizzy spells: Witness, most recently, the $1.4-billion settlement finalized last month between investment banks and securities regulators. If financial people read more contemporary fiction that reflected their world, I’ve often wondered, would they be wiser about their motives and less likely to repeat their mistakes, repeat the cycle? And would we understand them better, rather than just labeling anyone in a suit as greedy?
These questions beg to be asked, but sadly there are no answers because even if we wanted to read serious, smart, current fiction, there’s not much on offer. This was illustrated by a conversation a friend of mine had with an author at a dinner party. Novelists who had business themes, the author opined, were shooting themselves in the foot; they would never be taken seriously, never be literary contenders.
And she gave Louis Auchincloss as an example. Now, I would trade Louis Auchincloss’ “The Embezzler,” a nuanced novel about the peculiar down-the-rabbit-hole ethics and loyalties of Wall Streeters, for the rest of his oeuvre, but her point of view is a common one.
From time to time, someone grizzles about the lack of businesspeople and the workplace in fiction. As Norman Mailer recently wrote in the New Yorker: "[W]e are overfamiliar with the sensitivity of the sensitive and relatively ignorant of the cunning of the strong and the stupid. We remain one -- it may be fatal -- step removed from an intimate perception of the procedures of the corporate, financial, governmental, Mafia, and working-class establishments.”
And back in 2000 in Fortune magazine, critic James Wood made similar observations, giving as reasons both the sameness and the specialization of modern-day work: “We gape at screens.”
No story there, he implied. I couldn’t disagree more. Before we gaped at screens, white-collar workers pushed pencils, pounded typewriters, lifted ledgers, clacked adding machines -- no different from gaping at screens; novelists write about human nature, not computers. To be sure, computers have made whole sectors of work dauntingly complex but not impossible to explain. And the seven deadly sins certainly remain the same. Stories -- important stories -- abound. Clearly, Wood has never spent time, say, on the executive floor of an investment bank. Look beyond the trappings -- the suits and paneled walls -- and you find conflict and emotion Shakespearean in its dimensions.
Both Mailer and Wood were grieving the petering out, the drying up, in our time of a marvelously varied vein of literature about business. While Theodore Dreiser, William Dean Howells, Sinclair Lewis, H.G. Wells and Emile Zola may not have been writing business novels as such, businesspeople -- their scheming, sorrowing, passions, frustrations -- figure large in their work. To have ignored them would have meant ignoring a large chunk of the world.
The real task nowadays is to find contemporary form for these writers’ characters -- their moguls, entrepreneurs, bureaucrats and working stiffs -- and to portray their world for what it is: powerful, intoxicating, cascading with inventiveness and energy, yes, but also morally incomprehensible, bafflingly recondite and numbingly brutal. The absence of this honesty not only trivializes but also degrades the subject, as I discovered upon the publication of my novel, “Moral Hazard.”
At first, I didn’t think I was writing a business novel. In fact, it is neither fish nor fowl: The story about banking is joined with a personal story about Alzheimer’s disease and euthanasia, with the hope that the two stories would illuminate each other. When my agent was selling the book, we were told by editors that the Alzheimer’s part was strong but the banking part was a yawn. Who’d be interested in that?
Then Wall Street did a Humpty Dumpty, a spectacular one, balance sheets spilling open to reveal all kinds of dicky deals, and banking was suddenly front and center in people’s consciousnesses. I found myself in demand on business shows for my prescience, although anyone with half a brain and one eye open who worked on Wall Street in those years could have seen what was coming. I enjoyed some of the shows, especially when the interviewer was acquainted with Anthony Trollope or Tom Wolfe. Others were plain awful. I found myself fielding questions about Martha Stewart, of whom I don’t have an opinion, and about my investing habits, which are, heretically, nonexistent.
Partly from conviction and partly to get my name “out there,” I wrote some op-ed pieces about the hollowness of the speechwriting I had done, the ruthlessness of corporations, the powerlessness of employees. This was difficult, a moment of truth. To have my characters mouth off was one thing, to do it myself was another. Op-ed writing is useful in clarifying issues, but it is also polemic. Hard to be subtle in 800 words. If I wasn’t radioactive to former bosses for writing the book, I certainly was now. In fact, I’m blacklisted at the major banks, an achievement of sorts, you might say.
It all sat on me uneasily. I didn’t get to talk about my literary influences, how I had teethed on Samuel Beckett, admired J.M. Coetzee for his preoccupation with morality, or believe, as, Hannah Arendt wrote in her essay on Bertolt Brecht, that poets “must be careful not to talk too much about things that all talk about.” Instead, improbably, I found myself swept up in the hot topic of the day, business ethics, and expounding on the danger of unregulated derivatives, hardly a subject to commend me to the literary world or give an idea of my novel.
Yet, I have to say one of the most pleasing things that came of the business shows is that men began reading the book. It’s a well-known fact that men don’t read literary fiction by women; this is like breaking the sound barrier. Men prefer their characters to go to work, not heaven. I don’t read much literary fiction these days myself. Instead, I read mysteries and thrillers, which are much more likely to be tough-minded about moral and social concerns and have involving, affecting stories and self-aware, appealingly sardonic characters. When mysteries and thrillers are good, they are very, very good, far superior to most of today’s literary fiction, and yet the writers of them have been given a demeaning siding all their own. Another book I admire tremendously came out at the same time as mine, Mark Costello’s “Big If.” Reviewers often seemed more in awe of Costello’s insider knowledge of his subjects’ lives -- Secret Service agents -- than of his powerful writing and risky structure of the novel: his literary achievement. On “Big If’s” cover, Jonathan Franzen praised it as a governmental novel. And “Moby-Dick,” I suppose, is a cetaceous novel, and “Last Exit to Brooklyn” a town-planning novel. Such compulsive unproductive categorizing! I remain deeply interested in Wall Street -- both in its issues and in the people who populate it. But if I write another book with that background, will I be branded as a business novelist and shunted into a siding? Probably.
I agree with Mailer that the ignorance of and often willful disengagement from the “procedures” of the business world -- it’s more than one step removed -- by literary novelists could be fatal. Fatal to readers, fed a diet of the narrowly personal or entertainingly exotic and denied unflinching work that engages our public and private selves, our intellects and emotions. Fatal, also, to businesspeople, fed management books, ghost-written CEO wisdom and Tom Clancy thrillers and denied full-blooded, questioning fiction about their world.
The culprits are many: the edicts and expectations of writing schools, the cloistering of novelists, publishers and their marketing strategies, a passive reading public. The result: an etiolated, homogenized, ingrown “product.” Business people are fond of the word “robust” -- robust earnings, robust sales, robust strategies, although these days the only things that seem to be robust are the fines and the fraud -- and while I heartily dislike business jargon, for once I will use it and make a plea for fiction that is more robust. More commanding. Irrelevance is deadly.
From Charles Dickens to Kurt Anderson, the literature of business novels is marvelously varied. An incomplete list of its contemporary practictioners includes:
“The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” (1955) by Sloan Wilson
“Room at the Top” (1957) by John Braine
“The Embezzler” (1966) by Louis Auchincloss
“Something Happened” (1974) by Joseph Heller
“Money” (1984) by Martin Amis
“The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1987) and
“A Man in Full” (1998) by Tom Wolfe
“Nice Work” (1988) by David Lodge
“Biography of a Buick” (1992) by Bill Morris
“Microserfs” (1995) by Douglas Coupland
“Bombardiers” (1995) by Po Bronson
“American Pastoral” (1997) by Philip Roth
“Gain” (1998) by Richard Powers
“England, England” (1999) by Julian Barnes
“Turn of the Century” (1999) by Kurt Andersen
“Big If” (2002) by Mark Costello
-- Kate Jennings