And what do you do?

Don’t want to load you down with NYT links today, but I thought this essay in Sunday’s book review was necessary. Laura Miller writes on the dearth of serious fiction about what we do for a living, i.e., work. (Although, I must say, she takes the long way around getting there.) This is something I’ve noticed for a while — how often main characters are either married to money or inherited money or do something so vague for their money that we don’t even know what it is. And, face it, for most of us, work blots out the sun. You’d think, in this ambitious age, there’d be more of it in our fiction.

Posted at 8:39 pm in Uncategorized |

14 responses to “And what do you do?”

  1. Dave Reilly said on August 10, 2004 at 10:34 pm

    As you know, I’ve always thought the same and that when people in the future want to know what life was like at the end of the 20th Century/Beginning of the Milennium they’ll pick up Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen and not Ann Patchett or Jeffrey Eugenides.

    Most of the characters in contemporary fiction have jobs that they don’t have to go to. They’re college professors, artists of some kind, white collar workers in some quasi creative profession that leaves them lots of free time. In other words, they’re really writers. Work isn’t a concern, because the main theme of most contemporary fiction is LOVE. Finding it, losing it, not getting enough of it from spouse/lover/parent/child. John Updike is responsible.

    But there are always exceptions. Work figures thematically in:

    Everything by Richard Russo. Everything by Ward Just. Everything by Richard Powers. Most things by Jane Smiley.

    Table Money by Jimmy Breslin.

    The Contrarians by Gary Sernovitz.

    Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson.

    Bombadiers by Po Bronson.

    Battle Creek and All I Could Get by Scott Lesser.

    Affliction and Continental Drift by Russell Banks.

    These are just the best that sprung to mind. It’s late. I’ll think up some more in the morning.

    1243 chars

  2. Lex said on August 11, 2004 at 6:12 am

    It’s because the writers would have to go out and find out what it’s like to be a (insert occupation here).

    Everyone wants to be a pundit. No one wants to report.

    165 chars

  3. John said on August 11, 2004 at 7:53 am


    Nobody wants to play rhythm guitar behind Jesus. Everybody wants to be the lead singer in the band.

    111 chars

  4. Dave Reilly said on August 11, 2004 at 10:47 am


    The “Go out and report” vs. “sit at home, stare out your window, and make it all up” debate is an interesting one. But I think it’s ginned up because the Tom Wolfe side over-estimates by a long shot how much reporting a novelist has to do. So the debate always seems to be a matter of whose books would you rather have written, Upton Sinclair’s or Jane Austen’s.

    When Dickens set out to write Nicholas Nickleby and wanted to research the kind of boarding school that he turned into Dootheboys Hall, he made a single day trip out to Yorkshire, and didn’t even get to do the minimum of poking around he wanted to do because he was already so famous word of him coming to town got out and the schoolmasters barred their doors.

    So, basically, he went home and made Dootheboys up.

    I think what’s really at issue is what writers feel like making up, and it seems that many only feel like making up lives and worlds that are very close to their own.

    And it’s their own lives that are the limiting factor. Dickens didn’t need to do extra reporting because his career before he became a novelist was so full of variety and experience (including a stint as a journalist) so he had lots to draw on when he was making stuff up. The pre-writing career of your average fiction writer today is 20 years of school. And the life Dickens led after he began his career kept him in daily contact with all sorts and conditions of men and women. Your average fiction writer today hobnobs mostly with other writers, college professors, and students who want to be writers. Dickens did do journalism, but it was on the side, Talk of the Town kinds of pieces. Excellent stuff, collected in The Uncommercial Traveler and Reprinted Pieces. It’s interesting to read his journalism and see the originals of characters and places in his novels. It’s also interesting to note the ways he transformed them. Fiction, even when it’s based on reporting, is still a matter of making it up. Despite what he thinks he’s up to, what Tom Wolfe does in his two novels isn’t what Dickens did in his.

    All right, I’m running on here. I’ll cut to the chase. Dickens did what your average novelist does today. He wrote about the life he knew. He just managed to live in a way that brought him into regular contact with the way the rest of London lived. Writers don’t have to go out and report. But they do have to get out more.

    2422 chars

  5. Ann Fisher said on August 11, 2004 at 11:44 am

    One author who noticed this same problem and deliberately made work central to her novels was Carol Shields.

    108 chars

  6. Dave Reilly said on August 11, 2004 at 1:04 pm


    I’ve never read anything by Shields. I’ll have to change that.

    71 chars

  7. Jenny said on August 11, 2004 at 1:56 pm

    “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” Benjamin Franklin

    88 chars

  8. 4dbirds said on August 12, 2004 at 10:12 am

    I have no talent for writing, but your post did send me down employment memory lane. In my working life, in no particular order, I’ve been a car hop, hospital kitchen worker, soldier, legal clerk, abortion clinic worker, signals analyst, corrections officer, waitress, secretary, evictions mangier (most depressing job ever), network admin, help desk manager, software tester, telemarketer, mystery shopper, housewife and mother. Someday I’ll figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

    489 chars

  9. 4dbirds said on August 12, 2004 at 10:13 am

    Darn that spell check, make that eviction manager, not mangier 🙂 .

    69 chars

  10. deb said on August 12, 2004 at 7:10 pm

    dave, you may have hit on one of the reasons i enjoy richard russo and jane smiley so much. they not only write about work, but delve into the messy, inside-baseball details i love. i’ve always been fascinated with what other people do for a living.

    i’ve never been able to think about dentists the same way since reading that jane smiley novella (or maybe it was a short story) about dentists. do they ALL really think that none of their patients can be trusted to take care of their own teeth?

    as for richard russo, my brother-in-law spent a year as interim chair of his university’s english department, and assured me “straight man” was word.

    652 chars

  11. Dave Reilly said on August 12, 2004 at 7:43 pm


    Fred Busch is another one who can teach you how to do a job. The way the small town law office works is so deftly done Closing Arguments that it feels like eavesdropping. And I was pretty sure when I was reading Rounds that I could go out and build a stone wall based on the instructions in the chapter I’d just finished. Of course that chapter also taught me how to give good oral sex so I decided to put that lesson to work first and leave the wall for later.

    Damn wall never got built.

    502 chars

  12. deb said on August 12, 2004 at 11:08 pm

    whoa…a writer who teaches you how to build stone walls AND give good head? i’ve gotta check this guy out.

    107 chars

  13. Lex said on August 13, 2004 at 6:26 am

    Dave: I think we agree. I didn’t mean “report” quite as literally as it appears in print.

    John: If Jesus were the lead singer, I’d be perfectly happy to play rhythm guitar. But most lead singers think they ARE Jesus. I know; I was one. 😉

    242 chars

  14. Dave Reilly said on August 13, 2004 at 10:13 am


    It’s been a while since I read Rounds so I’m not sure whether or not I learned *how* to do it or learned that it’s fun to do it. I did learn that it’s a good idea if you do it outside on a beautiful fall day in your own backyard. It’s a very erotic scene, in a very good book.


    Sorry if I misunderstood you. I was really taking issue with Tom Wolfe, who pushes the reporting thing to the point where he’s arguing that novels should be only distinguishable from journalism in that the characters’ names are made up. Or, more like what he’s done, novels should be like Ralph Bakshi’s post Fritz the Cat cartoons, where cartoon characters are animated in front of real backgrounds.

    At any rate, Laura Miller’s right, work is not an important subject in most contemporary fiction. It’s not even important to the characters who supposedly have real jobs. This is from the Salon review of No Ordinary Matter by Jenny McPhee:

    “Jenny McPhee’s modern young women struggle to find their footing with or without men or children. In No Ordinary Matter, two sisters, Lillian, a beautiful neurosurgeon, and Veronica, a soap opera and musical comedy writer, hire a private investigator to probe the circumstances of their father’s death 25 years earlier, ultimately unearthing startling family facts. Along the way, a series of coincidences occur: For one, Alex Drake, the handsome new actor on Veronica’s show, has unknowingly impregnated Lillian in a one-night stand, which Lillian orchestrated to conceive a child.”

    Clearly the jobs McPhee’s given her main characters are really just a coded way of telling readers that the heroines are modern princesses in a contemporary fairy tale. (Note that one of the sisters is a writer and she’s obviously the main character.) The sisters’ jobs are not the wellspring of the plot or subplot. The novel is really all about finding love. The love of a lost parent and the love of a bad boy.

    This is what the market demands. McPhee probably couldn’t have sold a serious novel about a female neurosurgeon who had some tough ethical choices to make in dealing with an HMO. Nor could she have sold one about a musical comedy writer who had to rewrite the big number in Act II because the lead lost her voice.

    2286 chars