07 May 2007


Yet another remarkably ignorant screed in The CoIndependent's pathetically "lower-upper-middle-class" arts coverage — this time, again, by DJ Taylor — completely contradicts its own premise. The problem isn't the entirely reasonable opening question:

Work's relative absence from the novel is all the odder when you consider its absolute ubiquity. Not only is it a universal leveller, it is also one of the great venues for social interaction. Even the members of a chain-gang can be guaranteed to speak to each other now and again. Work ought to occupy the literary imagination as much as sex, money, or power, and yet for the most part the Anglo-American novel has spent at least half of the first two or three centuries of its development resolutely denying its existence.

"In Search of Novels About Working Life" (07 May 2007). This is a good question, from a certain limited point of view. Taylor displays ignorance of a vast swath of literature, though, later in the article. Unfortunately, it's an obvious blind spot... as significant as a detached retina. A couple of paragraphs after citing Orwell's weakest novel — Keep the Aspidistra Flying — as an example of a novel that does, somehow, manage to include an awareness of work (even if it's the protoliterary job of working in a bookstore), Taylor remarks:

A novel such as Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine (1988) in which the environment is seen as something more than a charnel house enclosing a band of resentful drones, is a comparative rarity. As for the really important modern developments in "work" — globalisation, the rise of the international money markets, the creation of a virtual economic world fundamentally detached from the processes of ordinary life — the number of contemporary writers capable of understanding their complexity, much less rendering them into fictional form, is painfully limited. Significantly, Joshua Ferris is interested in the pace and rhythms of work, the idea of an office as a kind of sluggish and rather desultory machine, subtly manipulating the human lives within its walls: there is no wider economic context.

Id. (typography corrected). The Mezzanine, but not 1984? Winston Smith's job at the Ministry is central to his being, to the story, to the underlying theme. Structurally, 1984's "off duty" events are shadows of his work that happen to have more color and detail than the work itself, but turn out to be merely hand-tinted elements of a very large grey-scale image. Oh, that's right — Orwell's most-commonly-cited (but all too infrequently actually read) work is commercial category fiction, whether one calls it "science fiction" or "utopian fiction" or whatever. Therefore, it's not literature.

A little bit of thought demonstrates that it's the so-called "escapist" parts of commercial category fiction that tend to have the greatest connection between the characters and the characters' "day jobs." That's obvious with the law-and-disorder types, often called "thrillers," "police procedurals," and so on. Similarly, speculative fiction usually revolves around the occupations of the characters; can anyone imagine Emilio Sandoz as anything other than a priest? Perhaps the paradigmatic example, though, is that odd, often impossible to distinguish pairing of military fiction and spy fiction. Some of the unreality here, though, comes as much from the utter lack of experience most of the writers have with the actual occupation as anything else. (For example, Tom Clancy wouldn't know "command responsibility" if it bit him on the ass... and, sadly, Herman Wouk wasn't that much better about it.)

That so few commercial novels qualify as "great literature" is far less an indictment of category fiction than it is a fundamental reality: Sturgeon was an optimist. When 90% of everything is crap, how does one proclaim that one subset that manages to maintain the crap level at 90% is inherently superior to another that slips to 92% without oneself falling into the 90%? If there's a way to do so, Taylor certainly didn't find it with the archly Bloomsburyish/Sohoish list of examples in that article. In a land that has good beer and bad wine, Taylor's dismissal of beer-and-bangers fiction for wine-and-cheese fiction seems just a bit odd in an article decrying the absence of good beer.

Of course, Taylor's article, and its underlying attitude, also reflect class snobbery — an issue explored more thoroughly in 1984 than those who haven't actually read it as a work of fiction (instead of as a purely political polemic) seem to recognize. Fiction — at least, "literary" fiction as defined by the Bloomsbury/Soho crowd and their illegitimate offspring (nothing so "ordinary" as legally sanctioned blood attainder would do for the literati) — ordinarily assumes that those whose work does not directly involve exploration of the self don't do so outside of work, either... or, when they do, that such exploration is almost invariably either stereotypically tragic or a desperate search for links between marginally amusing comic (not comedic) episodes. In short, we're back to "lower-upper-middle" again. But, since that often involves math (a five-letter word to most literati) and hard logic — especially when we're talking about scientists, astronauts, and other denizens of commercial-category fiction — one can understand why they shy away from it. Understand, but not excuse.