A call: help me with the beginnings of a new project!

This is a post I’ve put off writing for weeks, because I haven’t been able to organize my thoughts or do the research I would like to do. On top of that, I’ve been thwarted by lost files twice just tonight! But I will persevere with my “bleg,” because it’s the only way I think I can get this thing off the ground—with help from my very wise and well-read readers.

Oldtimers may recall that the second-ever bibliographing project was on maritime literature, which is still a great interest to me. And a lot of maritime literature concerns work—as Tom discusses in his post on Kipling’s Captains Courageous (which I must now read), “Harvey overcomes his petulance and joins the crew, where he does honest work, acquires practical skills (knots, for example), overcomes his class prejudices, and learns to appreciate useful work.” It makes sense, after all: a novel set on shipboard, with most of the characters as crewmembers, is bound to involve work, since that is, in fact, what they’re doing all the time—salting fish, furling sails, “the ordinary life of cod fisherman off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.”

Meanwhile, I have found work to be one of the more profoundly unsatisfying aspects of most contemporary fiction I read. Here is where I am frustrated with myself and hesitant to go forward: I don’t want to be trying to prove out a hypothesis, but exploring the fiction of work. But I do have a hypothesis, and I’ll come clean. I suspect, on very little evidence of course (since the project has not really started!), that the professionalization of writing (especially of novel-writing) has diluted the presence of work in fiction, and what’s more, has denuded it of its variety. To some extent, this is a variant on the old complaint about “program fiction.” If writers are “writers” (and yes, I know many struggle and need to have day jobs to actually support themselves), if they go from BA to MFA to novel-writing, and if this is the new normal, and their peers all do the same, how much variety of experience outside a few professions are we now drawing on in contemporary fiction?

I say “contemporary fiction”; I admit that I am largely thinking of a current New York–based literary scene that does, however, seem to dominate American letters at the moment. Not every character in these books is a writer, though they are often noted for their writer-narrators. But there is a fairly small circle of professions that are “acceptable,” for lack of a better term, in contemporary fiction: writers, designers, journalists, perhaps lawyers and doctors, maybe a chef or two, professors, professors, professors, writers, writers…a “creative class,” if you will.

I find myself feeling suffocated by this from time to time, and I’ve complained about it before. D.G. Myers put a big part of the problem well nearly a year ago:

American writers have rarely failed to mention their characters’ jobs or professions, but have almost never dramatized the work they are said to do. The drama occurs in the characters’ off hours. In last year’s Freedom, Jonathan Franzen puts his on-again-off-again rocker Richard Katz (Patty Berglund’s adulterous lover) to work “building urban rooftop decks,” but though you supposedly hear him hammering and sawing, you never actually see him ripping a board with a table saw or deciding which side of the board should face down. You never learn what materials he uses. He performs manual labor to distinguish him from Patty’s office-bound husband Walter, a lawyer for a non-profit, and to infuse a faded red T-shirt with his smell, so that Patty can spend the day in the shirt that he wore.

Even the lawyer, an “acceptable” occupation—we never find out what he actually does. We learn the area in which he becomes an activist, but what he does most days? Not so much.

There’s an admittedly personal element for me in all this, which makes me dislike writing this post even more than the general disorganization of my thoughts. I am, as it happens, a member of this “creative class,” but I’m also someone who has experienced (and continues to experience) the alienation of class mobility. I’m a first-generation college graduate, as well as a first-generation American (on one side, and, even more unusually, from a majority-white, Anglophone country). Happy as I may be with my own life, it never seems as circumscribed to me as I often find the lives of seemingly similar characters in these class-homogeneous novels. More things fall into my “acceptable” circle, which is not to say I could write about them without doing research—but when even many white-collar jobs, like, say, engineering, seem to be outside the scope of much contemporary fiction, I can’t help feeling that things seem small. This is one reason I often turn to more “regional” fiction; it seems to have a wider scope.

But, as I said, I want to explore this, not just pursue my own prejudices. One place to begin is another D.G. Myers post, a shockingly old one now. But I’m hoping for more suggestions. Nonfiction as well as fiction. I find myself instinctively uninterested in the sort of “office novel” about the absurdity of cubicle life, but perhaps I am wrong in that assessment. I’m not looking to find any sort of Great American Novel of Labor, or anything like that, but for more examples like the one Myers gave in Literary Commentary, of Philip Roth’s to-me-lovely description of glove-making in American Pastoral. For representations of classes beyond the creative and professional. I tweeted, I think, about this once, and I don’t remember exactly what I asked about, but I specified that I wanted to stay away from immigrant-oriented fiction. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, by any means, but seems to me like it would introduce many more elements into the mix, elements of cultural assimilation that aren’t as important to this particular project. But there are some thematic similarities—the cultural mobility and resultant alienation of immigrants could be very similar to the alienation of class mobility, the idea that you are no longer among “your people,” and must find a new way to navigate the world that your family was only somewhat able to prepare you for.

Again, the most frustrating thing for me here has been research; I do not know how to go about finding the kind of fiction I am looking for. Well, I should cut this ramble off now, I suppose, as it’s gotten plenty rambly. I’ll still be thinking about this, and looking for lists and suggestions elsewhere, but, dear readers, what do you think? Of the project, and some possible inclusions in it? The bibliographing Work Project has been dying to get out of my head and into some books (and into the blog); is it a worthwhile one? Are there closer ways I could focus? And what should I read?

24 comments to A call: help me with the beginnings of a new project!

  • I love this project and will follow along with great interest. I have similar feelings about work and fiction – especially contemporary fiction. And I feel even more guilty because I’m also an MFA grad who likes to write books… I do think what you’re talking about does come from the professionalization of writing, or from a kind of classism.

    For a first suggestion – although it is immigrant-experience related (although several generations removed): Patrick Michael Finn’s From the Darkness Right Under our Feet. This came out last year from the small, independent Black Lawrence Press. It’s what I would call blue-collar fiction, and there isn’t so much of that around these days.

    If I can think of anything else, I’ll let you know.

    One other thought – I can’t help wondering if some of the popularity in what I can only call “apocalyptic prose/poetry” or “absurd working situations” in contemporary fiction is also a response to the same frustration you’re talking about. Writers with not a lot of experience doing anything other than writing and who probably come from the upper (at least not poor) social classes are turning to an experimental writing style that embraces almost fantasy or often absurd topics. I’m thinking of writers like Blake Butler, for the experimental side, and maybe Karen Russell (although there are more in this genre) on the absurdist side.
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  • I should also have said that most of the fiction I’m talking about is coming from the small presses – a few key examples have made their way into the big houses, like the two I mention, and I wouldn’t be surprised if these “styles” get a lot of press in the years to come. The work is interesting, but I have wondered (as I read more and more of it) that it doesn’t cleverly mask the same inability to engage beyond “the creative life” as the NYC based publishing world.

    This is obviously an untested and unresearched opinion – but, for what it’s worth…
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  • This is a very rich theme to explore which, like Michelle, I’ll follow with interest.

    You’ve sort of ruled out the ‘cubicle worker’ novel on which I commented in a previous post. I can recommend Cederström and Fleming’s short but insightful Dead Man Working (non-fiction), which captures better than anything I’ve read the post-management consultant world of white collar work and its mind-numbing soullessness.

    The best book I’ve read on the sales profession, its language and banality, is Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods. Richard Ford, of course, is definitive on real estate sales with the Frank Bascombe series, as is Updike on car sales in his Rabbit series (his only readable books in my opinion).

    Richard Ford, incidentally, tackles this theme head on in an anthology called Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar. This may be worth a look. There is also a definitive textbook called American Working Class Literature, which looks at representations of labour, class and gender in fiction. The bibliography may prove as rewarding as the contents.

    The other book that comes to mind for a very different career-choice, that of hostessing in Japanese bars (mostly Western women) is Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness, a horribly compelling book, insightful in many ways.

    Sorry if that isn’t directly useful on American blue-collar fiction, but I hope it may provoke some thought.

  • “American” and “contemporary” put me at a severe disadvantage, Nicole, but how about William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 Nightmare Alley (carny!) and Charles Bukowski’s 1971 Post Office? Pulp/genre fiction would seem to provide a lot of outlier type career choices for your consideration as well.
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  • I’m really excited people are excited about this! That alone is not only great motivation but also makes me feel like I do have a reason to try this.

    Michelle—Thanks so much for those suggestions. I am not at all surprised that small presses are one of the sources here—indeed, my apparent disaffection with the “NYC scene” makes it almost inevitable. And I had totally thought of Karen Russell; I must read Swamplandia! (have read her short story collection already), because I think there will be something there.

    Anthony—I don’t want to rule out the “cubicle novel” entirely; in fact, I want to make sure to read some of the “best” examples. I’m definitely thinking of Something Happened, And Then We Came to the End, and I’m not sure what else. I should probably read The Pale King, but as a DFW virgin, it seems a bad place to start with him.

    I have Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar, which was a real fortuitous find and another thing that made me think “this project could really happen.” But I need to spend more time with it. Your other suggestions also sound super.

    Richard—I had thought of Post Office, but Nightmare Alley sounds good too. And I don’t necessarily want to limit this entirely—it’s got to be just as important to see what other people are doing elsewhere that might be along the same lines, or at least connected enough for me to expand my ideas.

    Thanks to everyone so far!

  • Most of the examples I can think of are antiques, and there are not so many of those.

    Have you read much Joseph Mitchell? Some of his articles are very much about work. E.g. “The Mohawks in High Steel” is about skyscraper construction workers and there’s the one about Long Island oyster fishermen titled – I forget. I think a number of them are about work, the result of Mitchell wandering around New York City looking for interesting subjects, but I guess it has been a while since I read them.

    Up in the Old Hotel is the standard Mitchell collection. The most famous things in it, and I do remember these, are “Professor Seagull” and Joe Gould’s Secret, which are more about not working.
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  • Rui

    ‘Baltasar and Blimunda’ or ‘The Gospel by Jesus Christ’, by Saramago

  • Great project – with a lot of complicating elements to figure in (one might well pose the question about why work isn’t valued these days outside of literature, given the anti-labor statements of some of our politicians and the outsourcing of so many blue collar jobs). Have you read Mark McGurl’s The Program Era? He focuses largely on this question of the professionalization of writing and the pervasiveness of the academy in contemporary American literature, but also includes a chapter or two on blue collar fiction. I thought of the glove factory in American Pastoral before I’d gotten to it in your post. It’s indeed difficult to think of other recent examples like that (I share Richard’s “severe disadvantage”), but a lot easier (as Tom notes) to point to earlier works, particularly from the Depression era. The most recent work I’ve read that deals explicitly with work is In Dubious Battle, by John Steinbeck. If I consider more recent writers, I’m still back a few decades with the stories of Tillie Olsen. John Williams’ Butcher’s Crossing, a historical novel, has extensive descriptions of the work of bison hunters, but I’m guessing that’s not the kind of work you’re seeking. I also assume you’re mostly interested in American fiction; if not, Austrian Franz Innerhofer’s Beautiful Days provides a rather stunning example. I look forward to seeing how your project progresses.
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  • The problem of work in the contemporary novel isn’t always a class issue. Look at John Williams’s Stoner, for example. It’s a novel about a professor, but it actually shows the work that a professor does. (And a good professor does work.) Roland Merullo’s The Talk-Funny Girl, besides being a wonderful novel, is set among the nearly illiterate poor and working class in New Hampshire. Not accidentally, it is one of the few recent novels to depict manual labor.
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  • Rui—Can you expand on those suggestions any more? I have read some descriptions, but not sure how they would fit (though I imagine that they easily could, based on content not described therein).

    Scott—Yes, very complicated and I just keep making it more complicated; I do feel like I’m going to need to start out a bit wide before figuring out what works (sorry!) and what doesn’t. I haven’t read The Program Era—yet—but I’ve read an awful lot about it, and it was a bit of an inspiration. I didn’t realize there actually was specific material there on blue-collar fiction, so I’ll have to get started on that one sooner rather than later.

    I was hoping for a Steinbeck suggestion, because most of what I’m familiar with isn’t actually super work-oriented, though you’d think it would be, so thanks for that. And Butcher’s Crossing is high on my TBR list in general, and sounds like it might fit. I’ll have to check out the Innerhofer as well; while my primary interest is American, I’m (clearly) not good at restricting myself.

    Prof Myers—Thanks for stopping by! I should say I never meant to imply that these professional classes don’t do real work; I certainly believe they do, and it’s part of why I shy from the “office drone” side of things. A lot of those “drones” are doing real work too. Still, while I knew Stoner was about a professor, I didn’t realize it showed so much what he does, and while I remember reading you liked The Talk-Funny Girl, I didn’t realize there was a manual labor aspect there as well. So thanks much for the suggestions!

  • Actually, the more I think about it, the more Stoner seems more appropriate than I ever would have thought. I had pretty much written it off as being about a professor, forgetting at least part of the point is that he comes from an agrarian background. Excellent!

  • I’m not widely read in contemporary fiction and can’t speak to how ubiquitous the problem you address may actually be. I’m not opposed to that rare metafictional tour de force that brings something new to the story of the writer writing about the writing that we’re reading, but I think that any story about a writer ought to do something with that. If a story does nothing new with that device, the writer has missed out on an opportunity to show the readers something that we have not before seen.

    I enjoy your blog very much, and I would hate for my first post here to being taken as stuck on semantics or priggish and pedantic, but, before I toss a reading suggestion or two at you, I feel that I ought to take issue with your having put this problem child on the porch of what you term “program fiction.” I have had some experience with creative writing programs, and I have to take exception to the idea that hundreds of programs, year after year, program thousands of writers to write a certain kind of fiction. There has been much said about the American MFA Complex and I will not rehash it here but for to say that, at best, an MFA gives writers a place to write for short period of time and, if they are lucky and if they work at it, their craft will improve during that time. I mean craft in a strict narratological sense and not in a prescriptive “masterplots” way. The only time I have ever heard a creative writing professor say to a student, prescriptively, “You should write [this kind of story] instead of the one that you’re writing,” the professor said it because the student was writing the kind of story that you, here, have said that you don’t want to read. No one reads more stories about writers writing stories than do creative writing professors, and I have never studied with one who wanted to ever read another. By and large most students with whom I studied came to feel the same, quickly, if they did not feel this way already. Writers are obstinate people. The majority of students in an MFA cohort will not throw away their subject matter because of what their professors say. Conversely, the few student who writes the stories about her or his working writing life as a member of the “creative class” may abandon her or his tales to avoid being a pariah in workshop, but she or he will return to it after the program has run its course.

    Instead of blaming the rise of this genre of writing on the MFA Complex, I think I’d point to the sad state of this country’s economy and its loss of industrial jobs and blue-collar jobs that pay living wages. I think some of this is to blame on corporate homogeneity and the fact that so many people are stuck manipulating data in cubicles or working in the service industry in all but identical jobs. I think it also has to do with new media creating more jobs for the “creative class” than we have ever before had.

    Two decades ago, it was easier for a guy in his twenties who had just finished a master’s degree to show up in a logging town and a take a job at a sawmill where he could work by and write by night about the kind of life that most of us know little about and could, in the right hands, find compelling reading. But there are not a lot of those jobs to go around today and, if I were to go and apply for one, the foreman would suspect that I was there because I could not get a job as a member of the professional creative class. He would worry that if he gave me the job, I would work there, bored out of my mind, until I found the kind of job that I coveted and then I would leave him in his sawdust needing to hire (and train) another worker.

    Most graduate programs in the humanities are honest with prospective students and tell them before they matriculate that the odds of finding a home in academia after graduation are slim, but I have seen a number of reports, lately, that allege an over-education, especially in the humanities, hurts one’s prospects of employment in fields that are not part of this “creative class,” and I think that this is something that is important for the next generation of writers to understand.

    A lot of people with whom I went to graduate school came later in life, after we had had been out in the world working in fields that were not “creative,” and we had (and many of us still have) significant experience to draw from (much like Melville writing as a member of the “creative class” from a desk in the Customs House). But after school, most of us who were in this demographic found ourselves typecast and unable to go back from whence we’d come while many of the younger people who had come in direct from undergrad ended up in entry-level “creative class” positions in new media. And, of course, I know far too many people who are stuck in lower education as adjuncts.

    All of this, however, blaming programs and blaming jobs, distracts us from what I think the two biggest problems are: a group of editors (at large and small presses) have decided that these are the kinds of stories that ought to get published and too many writers are too lazy to research that which is beyond their personal experience.

    I hope you will please forgive the above digression in exchange for some suggestions of authors you may wish to look at who treat work outside of the “creative class” authentically, which could include Russell Banks, Ron Carlson (especially, I am told, FIVE SKIES), Ivan Doig, Michael Doris (WORKING MEN is stories, but on point), Richard Ford (I agree with Anthony; Ford is excellent in this regard (and in others)), Alyson Carol Hagy, John Keeble, Perri Klass, Bill Kittredge, Billie Letts, Bobbie Ann Mason (I’d suggest starting with AN ATOMIC ROMANCE), Cormac McCarthy (especially The Border Trilogy), Elizabeth McCracken (the short stories in HERE’S YOUR HAT WHAT’S YOUR HURRY), Thomas McGuane, Chris Offutt, and James Welch (it also seems to me that there should be good example of this kind of thing in the short fictions of Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff, who don’t always deal with the domestic, but I’m having trouble coming up with specific stories off the top of my head).

  • Nathan—I am super glad you like the blog, and you are totally right to call me out on sloppiness about the program fiction issue. I don’t have any problem with MFA programs per se, and a lot of the work that comes out of them, I enjoy. The concern, for me, lies more in the issue of the number of people pursuing tertiary, and especially graduate, education. I know far too many people now, as an adult, who literally do not know, socially, any people who have not graduated college—and relatively few who have not gone further than that in their formal education. I grew up in a dramatically more heterogeneous class/educational environment. So seeing the MFA as a sort of window into the wider world of publishing (which is not, of course, necessarily the case), I get a feeling sort of like the famous “I don’t know anyone who voted for Nixon” quote—“I don’t know anyone who hasn’t got a BA.”

    Your fourth and fifth paragraphs are, I think, spot on, and I wish I had said them myself!

    Also, your penultimate one—and while I certainly hold editors responsible, my first, knee-jerk reaction is to blame the sort of “laz[iness] to research” that you describe. And, as a corollary to what I wrote above, that at least some of these writers have perhaps genuinely led a kind of insular life that makes those other experiences almost invisible to them (or, if they can see them, they truly don’t know how to navigate them).

    And what a list of suggestions! I am going to be a busy girl. Thank you so much for the very thoughtful post.

  • MJ

    I love the descriptions of glove making in American Pastoral. Well, and I just loved that book :-)

    A couple suggestions off the top of my head: Steinbeck’s “The Winter of Our Discontent” features a man who works at a small grocery store. “Their Eyes Were Watching God” has descriptions of at least a couple different jobs – grocer (again), and agricultural worker. “Come in and Cover Me” by Gin Phillips is much newer, I think out last year, and is centered around an archaeologist. The descriptions of her job were my favorite parts of the book. In “Swamplandia!” Karen Russel’s characters work at theme parks. Martha Southgate’s “The Taste of Salt” is focused on a marine biologist, but most of the work scenes are about her diving. Not too much on the day-to-day. In Richard Yates’ “Revolutionary Road” there are some good descriptions of office work, and how it becomes meaningful for the character, even if it did start out with “the absurdity of cubicle life.” “Water for Elephants” deals with day to day life working for a circus. Wow – I should probably stop now!

    I do think this is a worthwhile project. I never would have really thought about it, but I seem to enjoy books that at least somewhat explore what people do for a living. Even with books I’m not thrilled with, I like the parts that talk about people’s jobs. I’m excited to see what you come up with!
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  • Did some checking in Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust and More Book Lust – thinking she might actually have a category called “Work Literature” or something similar. I now find it very curious that she doesn’t. But in several other categories, there were some possibilities. I won’t put in all her descriptions, maybe you have these books and can look as well… (and some of these might not work at all, Pearl doesn’t always give a good indication of the “genre” of the book, so there may be a few mysteries thrown in this list).
    But wow, I was pretty excited to discover a huge list of American writers I have (mostly) never heard. I was also struck by two things, that most of these novels have a regional focus and that so many were written by women. Very exciting.

    (And, just an aside – I was also thinking of the lack of blue-collar work and the abundance of service industry jobs in American yesterday and wondering if that might be the reason for our shift in literature – but I see that someone else has beat me, and eloquently, to that topic).

    GRIT LIT
    Erskine Caldwell – Tobacco Road (stories of rural poverty)
    Tom Franklin – Poachers (factory life, Alabama)
    Larry Brown – (two novels) Fay, Joe

    MONTANA: IN BIG SKY COUNTRY
    Annick Smith – Homestead (memoir of homesteading in the 1960s)

    WESTERN FICTION
    James Galvin – The Meadow, and Fencing the Sky (both seem to be about work in some way)

    BIG TEN COUNTRY, THE LITERARY MIDWEST
    Harriette Arnow – The Dollmaker (factory workers in Detroit)
    Ruth McKenney – Industrial Valley (rubber factories of Akron)
    Mark Winegardner – Crooked River Burning
    Marcia Davenport – The Valley of Decision (steel mill owners – could be more of a family saga, hard to tell)
    Lauren Wolk – Those Who Favor Fire (Pennsylvania coal towns)
    Tawni O’Dell – Coal Run

    THE GREAT PLAINS
    Douglas Unger – Leaving the Land
    She mentions the Laura Ingalls Wilder books in this section
    Bess Streeter Aldrich – A Lantern in her Hand (pioneering)
    Wright Morris – Plains Song, for female voices (about farm work, Nebraska, family story)

    IDAHO
    Pete Fromm – Indian Creek Chronicles (wildnerness memoir, but appears to be about work)
    Melanie Rae Thon – Iona Moon
    Thomas Savage – The Sheep Queen

    LIVING HIGH IN CASCADIA
    Floyd Schmoe – A Year in Paradise (also manual labor memoir)
    Robin Cody – Ricochet River (logging towns)
    Molly Gloss – The Jump-off Creek (single woman homesteader)

    SMALL TOWN LIFE
    Lana Witt – Slow Dancing with Dinosaur Bones (coal-mining town)
    Wendell Berry – Jayber Crow
    Steward David Ikeda – What the Scarecrow Said (farming at Japanese internment)
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  • I haven’t thought about this “genre” of fiction before. But now you’re making me aware of possibilities. I second/third Stoner and Then We Came to the End. How about “anti-work” novels? Bartleby the Scrivener; The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (sand digging); Perfume by Patrick Suskind (perfumery); The Fixer by Joe Sacco (journalism fixing). There’s also white-collar-that-feels-like-blue-collar-anyway: Regeneration by Pat Barker (psychiatry); Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (aviation); Better, essays by Atul Gawande (medicine); Morte D’Urban by J. F. Powers (priesthood). And to add to the examples of work in the field of arts: Fair Play by Tove Jansson (a writer whose motto was “Labora et amare”); and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by César Aira.

  • For me, as a European, the American author I first think of when reading “work in the novel” is Upton Sinclair.
    It’s a very interesting project and I have a feeling I could add more but as usual when i see a post like that I draw a blank at first. But Upton Sincliar is certainly someone to include (maybe someone did already, I didn’t read all the comments)
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  • Do artists and musicians count as part of the creative class you’re describing? (It seems like they would, but you didn’t mention them.) There are quite a few novels that portray the actual work of musicianship, like Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, and others that describe the work of creating visual art, such as Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye.
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  • Scott Bailey

    I also thought of Bukowski, but I thought of “Factotum.” Jon Evison’s “All About Lulu” has a lot about work in it (fast food, radio announcing and body building). Jamie Gordon’s “Lord of Misrule” goes into some depth regarding work with race horses. “Tinkers” by Paul Harding has some nice long passages about work of a variety of sorts. It’s sort of a novella about the importance of work, I think. The protagonist in Francine Prose’s “Primitive People” takes a job as a housekeeper. I don’t know if any of these are really novels of work, but the characters have jobs and you see them working the jobs.

    Detective novels and police procedurals, of course, have loads of “at work” passages, but that’s not what you mean, I know.

    It might also be true that fewer Americans are doing interesting work than they used to do. The variety of jobs, I’m told, has shrunk and now most of us (or a great many of us) work in the service sector. I’m sitting in a cubicle at a major university as I type this.

  • Scott—I had wondered about Factotum. I may do both; I imagine they’d be relatively fast. Also:

    I don’t know if any of these are really novels of work, but the characters have jobs and you see them working the jobs.

    The more time I’ve spent thinking about this project this week, the more ice realized that’s really the point. As Amateur Reader reminded me on Twitter, a book like Hard Times has no work at all. How does Hard Times have no work at all? Is it not a “novel of work”? It’s the novel where “the characters have jobs and you see them working the jobs” that’s unusual, and interesting as well.

  • BRC

    Great project. Early Cormac McCarthy — the Tennessee period — as lots of blue-collar workers, and some great scenes that rival the gloves in Roth. As I recall, bricklaying etc are so prominent and so detailed that some critics think McCarthy ripped off the 1970s era Foxfire books, the original guides to hog dressing and other rural folkways.

  • BRC

    I’d also offer up Freedom, by Franzen, which is a lot about work. Walter’s work with the bird conservation/mountaintop removal group and Joey’s work with the defense contractor are the major plot drivers of the 2nd half of the book.

  • While it doesn’t neatly fit inside your strictures, I would nominate Gilead as one of the better recent examples of showcasing work (not to mention the blurring of the professional and personal for a minister).

    I don’t even know where to start on nonfiction–there’s a lot out there. If I understand the gist of what you’re looking for you might want to start with The Mind at Work by Mike Rose.
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  • I have one other nomination for you, thought it’s not a novel: the poems of Robert Frost. They’re full of work!
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