Here’s to a new literary genre: office lit

June 1, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

Alain de Botton, he of the philosophical consolations and the life-changing affinity for Proust, has just released a new book called The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work and, certainly not coincidentally, contributed a piece to Sunday’s Boston Globe in which he laments the fact that today’s novelists don’t write about work to the degree that Zola or Dickens or Kafka did. In de Botton’s view, contemporary writers have been “notably silent” about the one aspect of our lives that consumes better than 50% of our waking hours.

Today’s writers, de Botton claims, have “lost their nerve” where the subject of work is concerned:

There has been an unfortunate inward turn. Attention, brilliant though it might be, too often falls merely on the domestic and the natural. Consider some of the great Booker Prize-winning fiction writers of the last two decades: Anne Enright, John Banville, Yann Martel, Peter Carey, Kazuo Ishiguro – fine writers and deserving winners, yet all of them writing to one side of the working realm. The territory of the novel seems inevitably to be defined by the domestic subject matter tackled by Pulitzer Prize-winning writers like Anne Tyler or Michael Cunningham. 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.

While yr. humble correspondent is inclined to agree that “the domestic and the natural” account for a distressingly disproportionate amount of modern literature, particularly here in Canada, de Botton’s claim that writers have abandoned the field suffers from the same problem that any such sweeping generalization does: the moment it’s uttered, at least a dozen exceptions spring to mind. De Botton himself mentions Joshua Ferris, whose debut novel, Then We Came to the End, takes place in a Chicago ad agency. But Ferris is by no means the only author to take up such subject matter. Dana Vachon’s 2008 debut, Mergers and Acquisitions, is set in the world of investment banking. Douglas Coupland has set not one but two novels – Microserfs and JPod – in the cubicles of hi-tech companies. Leah McLaren’s The Continuity Girl and Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter (when was the last time you saw those two books referenced in the same sentence?) have their protagonists’ jobs embedded in their very titles. And going back a bit – though not so far as to abandon the realm of the “contemporary” novel – one of CanLit’s certified canonical works, Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, tells the story of the immigrant labourers who built Toronto’s Bloor Street Viaduct.

Of course, Ondaatje’s characters may not be precisely the workers that de Botton has in mind. In his Boston Globe piece, he writes that “much modern work has become white-collar work, almost totally without obvious heroism or romanticism.” The manual labourers who built the Bloor Viaduct are more romantic figures, members of a group whose occupation is “rich in anecdotes and color.” The modern office, de Botton suggests, is boring, “merely a place for degrading and banal labor out of which no one could spin anything of value other than (at best) a satirical or nihilistic commentary.” De Botton would likely view the television sitcoms 30 Rock and The Office – both successful prime-time series – as falling into the camp of “satirical or nihilistic commentary.” Likewise Clerks, the 1994 comedy that launched Kevin Smith’s career, or Mike Judge’s 1999 cult hit Office Space.

There also seems to be an internal inconsistency in de Botton’s own argument. He mourns the lack of writers who are willing to focus on the modern workplace – which he avers is increasingly a soul-destroying white-collar environment – then argues that what we need are more broad Dickensian canvasses that provide portraits of a wide spectrum of toil, both white-collar and blue:

We need an art that could function for our times a little like those 18th-century cityscapes that show us people at work from the quayside to the temple, the parliament to the counting house, panoramas like those of Canaletto in which, within a single giant frame, one can witness dockworkers unloading crates, merchants bargaining in the main square, bakers before their ovens, women sewing at their windows, and councils of ministers assembled in a palace – inclusive scenes that serve to remind us of the place that work accords each of us within the human hive.

Certainly, work is central to the human experience, at least in the capitalist West, and should consequently have a place in our literature. If contemporary writers eschew the offices and cubicles in which most of us while away our days in front of a computer screen, perhaps it is because work, like sex, is an experience that is at once universal and deeply individual, and therefore a daunting subject for any but the most intrepid novelist to tackle.