Now that I’m free and looking for something to read during my precious ‘leisure’ time (recovery time would be more accurate), I’m reminded how few Western novels (or films) deal with work. On the one hand, who wants to spend their free time reading about it? And aren’t novelists right to focus instead on what’s important to mortals (or should be): our relationships with family, friends and partners? The aim of art might be not to imitate life but to transcend it. To change our world and ourselves, we have to lift our eyes from the world as it is and imagine what could be.
On the other hand, shouldn’t I feel sceptical about films and novels that create a parallel universe in which work takes place off-stage or not at all? When novelists create a world, what they omit is as significant as what they include. Are writers colluding with exploitative economic systems when they pretend work doesn’t exist or leaves few marks on our lives? When we say we want entertainment, do we really mean we’d like to live in denial?
Today, I can’t get E.M. Forster’s Leonard Bast (Howards End) out of my head. There’s Leonard, knocking on the door of Culture, trying to enter the world of the genteel Schlegels, but he can’t get in because he’s a poor clerk struggling to make ends meet. Art, music, literature: these aren’t for Leonard. If he could get into that world, art’s subject matter would seem a fairy land in which no-one has to earn the next meal.
When I try to recall novels that confront work, they’re mostly from the nineteenth century: Balzac, Dickens, etc. In our times, it seems to be mostly comic and satirical novels that incorporate work (David Lodge’s Nice Work, for example).
What are the twenty-first century novels of work?