Business Fiction

…and no, I’m not talking about pro-forma income statements, but about actual novels.

Howard Davis, writing in Financial Times (8/22) says:

It is often said, with some justification, that there is no current British novelist who shows an interest in, and understanding of business life to match, say, Tom Wolfe. I can think of no fictional representation of the flora and fauna of London’s financial markets to rival The Bonfire of the Vanities. Nor can I imagine a British novelist who could write a magnificent novel about an estate agent, like Richard Ford’s recent The Lay of the Land.

Actually, it seems to me that serious recent novels that deal with business are pretty scarce on both sides of the Atlantic. Right off, I can think of a couple:

There’s Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, in my view a much better piece of work than Bonfire. I also liked Nice Work, by David Lodge, which is about the relationship between Vic, the general manager of a British foundry, and Robyn, a university lecturer in 19th century literature.

There are also a few nonfiction business books that are so intense and/or well-written that they would have made good novels if they hadn’t been real. Father, Son, and Company, by Tom Watson Jr of IBM, falls in this category. So does On the Rails, by Linda Niemann, a PhD who took a job as a brakeman for the Southern Pacific Railroad. (My review of the Niemann book here.)

What other recent business novels are out there? Any other business memoirs of literary quality?

6 thoughts on “Business Fiction”

  1. Well, writers are articulate intellectuals and articulate intellectuals seldom have any direct experience with business on which to base meaningful fiction. I think this especially true in last few decades when people begin to specialize in their careers much earlier. Prior to the 20th century people, you sometimes found people who worked in business during the day and wrote at night.

    I note that writers and other artist do a very good job capturing the fell of the kind of low skill jobs that artist of all kinds often must work while they wait for their big break. Seldom, however, do they accurately portray how people in other fields, especially the highest levels of those fields, actually live their lives.

    I think future students of literature and art will look back at our times and marvel that individuals with such a narrow experience of wide world nevertheless felt confident in they could capture the essence of that world in their art.

  2. While Shannon has a point and much that is theoretically “about” business has really been unsympathetic portraits of “the other” rather than of psychologically rounded characters, I might point out that the mystery lists are full of lawyer generated detectives (and academic ones, too). I’m not sure if you want to count lawyers as businessmen, but as an insurance attorney, Wallace Stevens probably should count. By all accounts very good at what he did and he refused an easier academic job even in his late sixties apparently because he didn’t want to retire. On the other hand, I don’t teach Death of a Salesman because it is cold and superficial. When Arthur Miller nonchalantly said in the early nineties that he guessed he was on the wrong side of history I wasn’t surprised – he was a condescending elitist who clearly thought he deserved the big bucks and businessmen did not.

    A few years ago I read that some MBA teachers were appalled by the students they were getting from the humanities – they seemed to think anything goes in business. Of course, a lack of ethics is punished more quickly and more firmly in business than in academia – the example they had. I wasn’t surprised. It is not unlike the whole Beauchamp scandal – this is what a soldier is, I become a soldier, I do these things. Even if he had done them and even if he had been scarred by war experiences, neither of which was true, this was what his fevered imagination thought a soldier was – a pirate and thief, a con-man and liar – that was what those students thought a businessman was all about.

  3. “…the kind of low skill jobs that artist of all kinds often must work while they wait for their big break.” Classic example: Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which really crosses over into “slumming”, but is still an excellent book.

  4. One “business” memoir which is quite good is Walter Runciman, Before the Mast — and After: The Autobiography of a Sailor and Ship-Owner. (1924). It is the story of a man who goes to sea as a cabin boy, who ends up a ship captain and then the owner of a shipping company. His life covers the transition from sail to steam, and has a lot about the business of shipping in the second half of the 19th century, including the way the ship owners pooled their money for insurance and required everyone to adopt safety innovations as they came along. A remarkable book about a remarkable time. One of those good books you find by accident.

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