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?