Of Writing and Work

Bob O’Hara kindly e-mailed me a link to this interesting post at Anecdotal Evidence. The blogger observes that:

As a newspaper reporter I learned that two subjects might open the mouths and memories of recalcitrant interviewees – their families and work. People love talking about what they do – bragging and complaining — especially when they’re good at it and enjoy the work. Work is central to most of our lives.

…and wonders why there is such an “absence of work” in contemporary literature. He cites two theories: Alain de Botton’s view that “technology has alienated most of us, including writers and other artists, from the means of production,” and Frank Wilson’s assertion that “What this really is about is the extent to which art has become divorced from life as it actually lived by most people.”

A couple of years ago, I put up this post, which asked readers to come up with examples of fiction and memoirs which deal substantially with business and which are of a high literary quality. The Anecdotal Evidence post prompts me to reopen the question, while broading the scope from “business” to “work” of any kind.

My suggestions include:

A Man in Full, by Tom Wolfe (novel)

Nice Work, by David Lodge (novel)

Father, Son, & Co, by Tom Watson Jr. (memoir by the long-time CEO of IBM–unlike most business autobiographies, there is a lot of emotion in this book)

On the Rails, by Linda Niemann (memoir by a PhD in English who took a ob with the Southern Pacific Railroad–has been compared to Meville’s work. My review here)

Speaking of Melville… his White Jacket is somewhere between a memoir and a novel–it is based on the author’s experiences as a crewman on an American sailing warship

Landscape with Machines, by L T C Holt (memoir about life in the Welsh border area and work in heavy industry)

Also see this recent post by OnParkStreet, which sparked considerable discussion.


25 thoughts on “Of Writing and Work”

  1. “Soul of a New Machine” was good. Also, “Riding the Runawy Horse,” by Charles Kenney, is a well-written book about the rise and fall of Wang Laboratories.

    A few more come to mind…”Bitter Waters,” by Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov, is a memoir by a Stalin-era manufacturing executive. (I reviewed it here.)

    “Behind the Urals,” John Scott, describes the author’s experiences as an enthusiastic American who went to help “build socialism”..specifically, he helped build a steel mill.

    “American Steel,” by Richard Preston, is about the early days of Nucor Steel Corporation.

  2. I think technology brings us closer to the means of production. You want to know what people do? Read their blogs. Google terms from their business. Of course, some people define technology as technology that they aren’t familiar with, and overlook the technologies they’re comfortable with.

  3. It’s interesting that the technologies Alain de Botton cited as “alienating”…

    “gantry cranes and iron-ore bulk carriers…switch gears and wheat storage…manufacturing protocols for tensile steel cable”

    …are all technologies which have been around for a century or more. More typically, members of the Criticizing Classes tend to view the technologies of their own time as dehumanizing and to romanticize the technologies of 50 or 100 years ago.

  4. I’m not sure I understand the question, maybe I don’t read enough contemporary literature. Surely all those books in which the protagonist is a noble but struggling writer would count? Or a detective, or a doctor, or a lawyer….

    On the other hand…

    When I was a kid I noticed a trend in children’s literature which I called “the summer vacation book.” The kids in these stories don’t go to school, because it is uninteresting to reader and writer alike. I always preferred these to books which tried to make school “relevant” but the best ones (I wish I could think of examples) integrated school and other activities in a believable way. I think this is all because, for the most part, nobody sees school as a relevant part of life.

    My guess about this is that work has gone down the same path, not necessarily because of technology, but just because so many people do work which has no meaning to them.

    In terms of counter examples, Wendell Berry’s fiction comes to mind. His characters often have their work heavily integrated into their lives, and so character development, character interaction, dialog, etc is frequently dependent on the working context.

  5. I agree with Frank Wilson that: “What this really is about is the extent to which art has become divorced from life as it actually lived by most people.”

  6. John..”struggling but noble writer”…yeah, there seems to be a lot of this. A certain amount of it is fine, but when the main thing writers write about is writers, it becomes sort of…incestuous.

    “detective/doctor/lawyer”…these do seem to be the main professions in popular fiction and television shows (if you generalize “detective” to include “cop” and “crook.”) Again, these are reasonable fields for fiction, but represent a pretty small % of the total work being done in America, implying that there are a lot of good stories going untold.

    Several years ago, I saw an ad for a TV program called “The Closer”..

    “Oh, good,” I thought, “a new series about a high-level female salesperson focused on big deals.”

    Of course, it turned out to be just one more cop program…

  7. “Two Years Before the Mast” by Dana.

    Takes a Harvard boy and makes a man of him by sailing around the Horn (twice) and spending a year in Mexican California lugging cow hides. Besides the acclimation to hard physical labor on a merchant crew, Dana also has great description of what California was like through the eyes of a Yankee while under the Spanish/Mexican regimes before the Americans came under Polk.

    A ripping good sea story too.

  8. Harry Morgan, a hard bitten Key West fisherman/charter captain cum smuggler , comes to my mind from Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not” (suggest the book over the movie).

    Trying to “make it pay”, Harry faces a wide array of moral decisions in what becomes his high-risk, high reward entrepreneurship.

  9. David mentioned “A Man In Full” by Tom Wolfe. Wolfe also did “The Right Stuff”, a (factual) tale about the original Mercury 7 astronauts. Glamorous and elite workers.

  10. Don’t know any contemporary examples (I’m basically a blank slate in contempo literature). Most gripping book I know, actually a trilogy, that could be said is about a work or business is Theodor Dreiser’s The Financier/The Titan/The Genius.

  11. Neville Shute should be one of the writers on any conservative writer list. I would suggest “Round the Bend” which is a story of a young aircraft mechanic who, after the war, decides to buy a war surplus airplane and start an air freight business in the middle east. He works very hard and manages to get his small airline to three planes. He hires locals rather than British pilots and mechanics to save money and sort of alienates the local British colonial officers. Then, on a trip to Indonesia, he meets a young man who worked with him before the war when they were boys working for a small air show as sort of clowns. The young man has become an outstanding mechanic and engineer. He convinces him to come back to the middle east to help him in his air freight business. After a while, he becomes aware that his friend has become a religious figure among to locals. They come to pray at the hanger. The rest of the story is about this fellow’s religious beliefs, summarized as the modern equivalent of St Benedict’s “To labor is to pray.” The friend, Shak Lin, convinces young men that doing their work as aviation mechanics well is praying. Their reliability improves as their diligence increases. Other airlines learn about this and try to hire mechanics among Shak Lin’s disciples. Of course, the British civil authorities become hostile to the whole idea. It’s a very powerful story, I think, and is all about work.

    Another of his novels about work and business is “A Town Like Alice.” I try to get my daughters to read this. the young woman in the story goes to live in the Australian Outback and transforms a small town by starting businesses that give people work.

    Shute was very upset at the Labour government and emigrated to Australia after the war. Another of his novels with businessmen as heroes is “Trustee From the Toolroom,” which is also one of the four or five best sailing novels of all time.

    When I was at Dartmouth in the 90s, there was a lot of interest in quality improvement in healthcare. I did a paper on Csikszentmihalyi’s book, “Flow”, which postulates that, for most people, their work is the most pleasurable experience of their lives.

  12. Michael K’s comment reminds me: Antoine de St-Exupery’s “Night Flight” is also about work, specifically, the early days of aviation mail.

    But of course St-Ex was both a professional writer and a professional pilot..simultaneously…I’m not sure, but I believe Melville’s days as a seaman and his days as a writer were two different periods in his life.

    Also, it strikes me that it’s considerably easier to write a novel or screenplay featuring a kind of work that is physical and visual than a kind of work which is intangible.

  13. Ditto on the Nevil Shute novels that Michael cites – all about work and business and making a living, and even finding redemption in work.
    I know this treads onto the dreadfully predictable cop/lawyer/doctor meme, but I always thought that Dorothy Sayers mystery “Murder Must Advertise” was a wonderful evocation of what it was like to work in an advertising agency in the 1920s.
    And perhaps it verges on historical novel territory, but Anton Myrer’s “Once an Eagle” is an informative and inspiring demonstration of what it is like to be a leader of (grin) persons in the military.

  14. Hey, thanks for the shout-out!

    Is it really so that work is not a significant topic of contemporary literature? Define literature :) If you include, say, science fiction or chick lit, is that so? Chick lit, in particular, is very into the job. Seriously. Almost always the chick ditched the boring job to open some small creatively oriented business. Quite interesting phenomenon, actually.

    Okay, you are probably right about the kind of stuff that wins Booker Prizes (which, I sometimes quite like, actually) and this has been the topic of lit crit critics crowd for years – that the MFA crowd has leached some essential vitality from it all because it’s all gone internal, small, minuscule, atomic-level examination of internal feelings and so forth.

    Well, I dunno, I’m too busy to explore this fully now but I want to think about it and maybe explore the topic later.

    By the way, liked Deaf Sentence by David Lodge and one of the things I liked was the way he captured the textures of certain segments of Modern Western life, just as we know it now: the students, the email correspondence with Professors, and come to think of it, the main character’s wife owns her own business, too. How is that small businesses – the creativity and vitality of such things – is not connected to the right in popular culture, but to the left? Or, is this so? Many things to ponder… .

  15. I have been waiting for the Once an Eagle TV series to come out. Sam Damon is played by one of my favorite actors, Sam Elliot.

    Shute was also a very successful engineer and his books like “No Highway” are wonderful books about engineers. His wartime books are also excellent. “Pastoral” is about an RAF base and a crew of a Wellington bomber. “Most Secret” is about naval special forces and has some engineering and business in the plot.

    When I was a college student, “On the Beach” came out and scared me so badly that I am still unable to enjoy reading it. I was convinced that he was correct (It is about the end of the world from a nuclear war) and very nearly dropped out of school. It threw me for a loop. I was already a fan of his and “Ordeal” had predicted the Blitz and “No HIghway” predicted the Comet crashes from metal fatigue.

    All of his books are still in print 50 years after his death.

  16. Another writer of novels about business was John P Marquand. Few remember him now but he was once very popular. One of my favorites is “Sincerely, Willis Wayde,” a novel about the Depression and a young man starting out then. “BF’s Daughter” was another well known one.

  17. It’s worth reading Nevil Shute’s “Slide Rule”, an autobiographical account of his time as an aeronautical engineer. It probably explains why he wasn’t divorced from the world of work.

  18. “Slide Rule” also explains his antipathy to bureaucrats and the Labour Party. At one point, Lord Nuffield stops his company from manufacturing small airplane engines rather than cope with a bureaucratic maze of new rules. This was 1938 or 39 and was devastating for a small plane Airspeed was building. There was no alternative engine.

    Shute was a bit of a mystic and his most mystical novel is “In the Wet”, which predicts the future of England in the 1980s, 30 years after it was written. It is too pessimistic about Britain and too optimistic about Australia but does include some of his ideas about reincarnation and some other ideas he had. He really hated Labour.

    I just finished “Turbulent Skies,” a book about the history of commercial aviation, and the first chapter quotes him that airplanes will never fly faster than 130 miles per hour and it would not be until 1980 that they reached that point. His predictions were not all as good as those in “No HIghway.”

  19. There is of course Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” which is largely centered around the progagonist’s job (although IIRC he is never actually shown in the process of selling anything)…Michael Kennedy’s comments about aircraft engines reminded me that Miller also wrote a play called “All My Sons” in which the protagonist is manufacturing some part (cylinder heads, I think) for military engines and gives in to the temptation to cut corners on quality…IIRC, this was driven more by production demands than by financial considerations.

  20. I’ve seen “All My Sons” staged in Orange County. The father kills himself at the end. It’s rather anti-business as one might expect from Miller.

  21. David, and then there is of course is Fountainhead. I was amazed how incredibly perceptive was Rand in her description of the inside dynamics in architectural world, for someone who only worked in architect’s office for 3 months – and not as an architect.

  22. Tracy Kidder:
    – “House”
    – “Among Schoolchildren”
    – “Mountains Beyond Mountains”

    John McPhee:
    – “Survival of the Bark Canoe”
    – “Looking for a Ship”
    – “The Control of Nature”
    – “Oranges”
    – “The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed”

    Both of these authors are still alive and publishing new titles regularly :-)

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