Great novels about work

This week I returned to the business newspaper where I’ve worked on and off for the past ten years. For the next six months I’ll be filling in there a couple of days a week for an editor who is on maternity leave. Aside from the fact that I’ve now thrown myself another ball into the air to juggle, this change, along with a lot of pondering of my novel-in-progress, got me thinking about novels about — you guessed it — work. (The novel-in-progress contains quite a bit of its characters’ working lives. Work is itself a character.)

And so I thought I’d put together a listing of novels about work. I tend to look for “model books” when I’m writing, to see how other authors have tackled certain topics/themes, and thus I love to see and collect lists of books that have themes in common. There’s more fiction about the workplace than you might think. After all, everyone who’s had to make it through a slow Friday afternoon on the job knows that work can be tedious, and how does one go about making a novel out of that?

-It happens that a couple of books have been released recently that focus on the workplace: David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King (arguably also about tedium) and an anthology edited by author Richard Ford Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work.

-Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End is perhaps my favorite novel centered on work, and especially on office life. He captured the strange time of the dot-com boom and bust of the early 2000s in writing about employees of an ad agency.

-Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates. What a fabulous example of the great American novel! It’s Mad Men, before there was “Mad Men.” And it’s all here: the house in the suburbs, the commute to the city, the disconnect between working life and home life. Working life in the ’50s.

-You might not think of it this way, but The Great Gatsby has a work theme. (Plus I just love the novel, and will bring it up whenever possible.) TGG takes place at a particular time in economic history, much in the way Ferris’ novel does, in which young people are arriving to New York in droves to work for banks. I can’t help but include this lovely graph, in which Nick is working late in his office in Manhattan:

I wanted to get out and walk eastward toward the park through the soft twilight, but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild, strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.

Other places to find work in fiction: Richard Ford’s Sportswriter trilogy; John Cheever’s stories (at the very least, the commute is prominent, as is the disconnect between work and home life, much as in Yates’ novel. Cutting for Stone is one of the finer novels I’ve read involving the medical profession; Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists examines the life of expat journalists; Allegra Goodman’s Cookbook Collector tackles both life at a pre-9/11 dot-com and work at a Berkeley antiquarian bookstore. Melissa Bank’s Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing includes quite a bit on starting out in publishing. Of course there are the more popular novels: The Devil Wears Prada, The Firm, Vertical Run, etc., etc.

And so, back to the grind. Happy reading!

Links:

The Independent’s “In search of novels about the working life” takes a look at why there aren’t more novels about work (“Work’s relative absence from the novel is all the odder when you consider its absolute ubiquity. Not only is it a universal leveller, it is also one of the great venues for social interaction.”) and considers some of the great books involving the workplace, including Ferris’ book, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, and other classics, like The Jungle.

Six great work/business novels (The Daily Beast) Includes Yates’ novel and Joseph Heller’s follow-up to Catch-22.

Ian McEwan’s Five Favorite Novels About Work (Salon) Obviously, we can’t leave out Updike.

An impressive compendium from Library Booklists (a great resource, BTW) Financial, Work, Business, and Math Fiction

Richard Ford on his new anthology, on public radio’s Marketplace

NY Times’ review of DFW’s The Pale King

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8 thoughts on “Great novels about work

  1. “I tend to look for “model books” when I’m writing, to see how other authors have tackled certain topics…”

    Me too! I know so many writers who are afraid of doing things like this — afraid to accidentally plagiarize or something — but I find it really inspiring and helpful.

  2. This post is so well timed for me! I was just thinking about work and writing, the other day. There seem to be a lot of TV shows that enter the work world, but not so many novels.

    Thanks for the suggestions and links!

  3. That is an extremely comprehensive list of books about work! Christine LZ’s favorite book is the Great Gatsy, btw. You probably know that. I like it, but it’s not my favorite, and I’m curious to know what makes it a perfectly constructed novel, only because I want to know what makes any novel a perfectly constructed novel. I LOVED Cutting for Stone (I gave it such a rave review that I got quoted for the paperback!) Sadly, I haven’t read most of the others you mentioned. I saw the movie Revolutionary Road, but haven’t read the book.

  4. Congratulations for your “new” job! Don’t worry about it, I’m sure you can manage after some adjustment period.
    I like your list a lot (never thought of Great Gatsby this way!), of course Joshua Ferris came to my mind, and The Firm, Prada etc. Too many books are quite elusive when it comes to the job of their main characters, or present completely irrealistic work environment (I don’t have any specific title in mind right now, but I had been annoyed especially with French contemporary novels).
    On the other hand, I often don’t really want to read about work after my work day… If a lot of people are like me, that would explain why there aren’t that many books on that subject!

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