Work & Eight Great Novels of the Workplace

Up the Down Staircase:  A Really Bad Day in the Workplace

Up the Down Staircase: A Really Bad Day in the Workplace

According to a Gallup poll, 70% of American workers are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ and are “emotionally disconnected from their workplaces’ and ‘less likely’ to be productive.

That means they don’t like their jobs.

I’m not surprised.

Women of my generation who earned liberal arts degrees from state universities didn’t think much about the looming spectre of the workplace.   The women who would be CEOs and the nation’s leaders graduated from other schools.

It was assumed we would teach.

We would teach the children of the CEOs.

We taught.

My first friend to earn a Ph.D. in English quit her job as a Visiting Lecturer after one year and went to library school.

My most brilliant friend taught at several colleges and was denied tenure.  He went to law school.

My first friend to teach at a boarding school wrote me a long heartbreaking  letter saying that she was wasting her life.  She quit to get married.

I taught for a few years, but like most of us found it so draining that I went on to other gigs.

The workplace can be an office, a factory, a store, a restaurant, an insurance company, a

Since all of us work, have worked, or have calculated ways to work less or not at all, it is odd that work is not described in fiction more often.

Here is a  list of Eight Works of Fiction about the Workplace.  I need two more for a traditional ten, so please recommend.

Roast Beef Medium edna ferber1. In Edna Ferber‘s brilliantly funny collections of career-woman short stories, Roast Beef, Medium, Personality Plus, and Emma McChesney & Co., the plucky heroine, Emma McChesney, is a very successful traveling saleswoman. She rises from traveling petticoat salesman – she has the much-coveted Midwest region – to partner of Featherstone Petticoats.

Sometimes when Emma is on the road, she is nostalgic for roast beef.

As Emma McChesney loitered, looking in at the shop windows and watching the women hurrying by, intent on the purchase of their Sunday dinners, that vaguely restless feeling seized her again. There were rows of plump fowls in the butcher-shop windows, and juicy roasts. The cunning hand of the butcher had enhanced the redness of the meat by trimmings of curly parsley….There came over the businesslike soul of Emma McChesney a wild longing to go in and select a ten-pound roast, taking care that there should be just the right proportion of creamy fat and red meat…. She ached to turn back her sleeves and don a blue-and-white checked apron and roll out noodles.

Nevada Imogen Binnie2.  In Imogen Binnie’s bold, if wildly uneven, new novel, Nevada (the selection of this month’s Emily Books club), the heroine, Maria, a transgender woman, works in a bookstore in New York City until she breaks up with her girlfriend and takes a road trip.  With the road trip the novel turns into a kind of Y.A. novel, but here Maria thinks about her job.

It is a bookstore, though, so she gets, like, I am looking for this book, it has a blue cover, a lot.  It’s supposed to be the worst annoying thing you can ask a book seller, but she’s into it.  People alays think they know less thatn they acutlaly do about a book.  She can usually draw it out of them and figure it out.  When did you see it?  Where did you hear about it?  Is it a happy book?  These conversations can almost be like a moment of actual human connection, except it’s basically a one-direction connection.  Maybe in another life Maria will be a therapist or a social worker or something.

220px-WeekInDecember sebastian faulks3.  In Sebastian Faulk’s A Week in December his characters’ attitudes toward the workplace are brought into sharp relief the week before Christmas.  Jenni Fortune, an underground tube driver, loves her job but is being sued by a “jumper”;  Gabriel, a depressed lawyer, loves to read Balzac but is bored by his job;  Veals is an unscrupulous financier who likes to take phone calls in an alley; and Tranter is a freelance book reviewer interested only in bad reviews. “Crash was what he wanted:  crash and burn–failure, slump, embarrassment.”

4.  In Doris Lessing’s Love, Again,  the 65-year-old heroine, Sarah, a powerful, busy playwright and manager of The Green Bird, a “fringe theater” in London, writes a play and song lyrics based on the journals and music of Julie Vairon, a French mulatto artist and composer.  When they rehearse the play in France  for a festival to be staged near Julie’s house in the woods, the atmosphere becomes romantic and enchanted; and the sexual tension is palpable.  People begin to fall in love, but the novel is also about the theater.

doris-lessing love, again5 & 6.  In William Cooper’s charming autobiographical novels, Scenes from Provincial Life and Scenes from Metropolitan Life,  the narrator, Joe Lunn, describes his work as a physics teacher in a boys’ school and a civil servant in London.

Scenes from Provincial life & Metropolitan life7.  H. G. Wells’ Kipps, a  charming fairy tale,  is the story of a draper’s apprentice whose life is magically transformed by a legacy.  Wells, who also worked in a draper’s shop, portrays  Kipps’s boredom and bewilderment during the long hours at this unfulfilling job.

His round began at half-past six in the morning, when he would descend, unwashed and shirtless, in old clothes and a scarf, and dust boxes and yawn, and take down wrappers and clean the windows until eight.  Then in half an hour he would complete his toilet, and take an austere breakfast of bread and margarine and what only an Imperial Englishman would admit to be coffee, after which refreshment, he ascended to the shop for the labors of the day.  Commonly those began with a mighty running to and fro with planks and boxes and good for Carshot the window-draper, who whether he worked well or ill, nagged persistently, by the reason of chronic indigestion, until the window was dressed.

8.   Ann Beattie’s Chilly Scenes of Winter.  Charles works as a civil servant and pines for Laura, a librarian who used to be his girlfriend; his best friend Sam is an unemployed jacket salesman.  In the ’70s, when this novel is set, college graduates were as underemployed as they are now.  Beattie understands office life.

Chilly Scenes of Winter

11 thoughts on “Work & Eight Great Novels of the Workplace

  1. Ivy Low Litvinov’s lost novel “The Questing Beast” tells of life and love in an insurance office in the early part of the 20th century – definitely deserves a Persephone reprint!


  2. Louisa May Alcott faced the issue directly in her novel entitled Work. In it, a young woman tries various kinds of work: seamstress, actress, companion. These were the jobs available to respectable young women in her day. She did not include writer (which she was) or teacher (which she had been but did not enjoy). The novel is dated, but fun to read.


  3. Thanks for the terrific recommendations!

    I’ll add D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, for his realistic teaching scenes and Ursula’s honest reactions.


  4. “One Pair of Hands'” by Monica Dickens about her jobs as a housemaid in London and “Malled” by Caitlin Kelly about working retail in an upscale mall in New York.


  5. Oh, thanks, Belle! Monica Dickens is one of my favorites. That is an excellent choice. I must read some Monica Dickens this summer. Now that you’ve reminded me of her, I can add One Pair of Feet (about nursing) and My Turn to Make the Tea (about journalism).

    I don’t know Caitlin Kelly, but this sounds very amusing.


  6. Malled was one of the worst books I have ever read. I have no idea how it got published. I couldn’t stand Kelly. Is this too harsh?


    • I don’t know if it was The Worst, but I will admit it was a little disappointing. I was expecting more ‘insider’ stories about retail (I have been in that world). Still, I thought she offered some sound insight into Corporate Retail Hell.


      • She barely worked. I don’t consider one day a week for a couple of years “a career.” Oh gee, a sales associate is treated badly by corporate and customers. No kidding. I’m sorry to rant but her self absorption and thinly veiled racism made me so angry that I had spent time reading this book.


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