Nowadays it seems any writer of literary fiction must have some opinion on the economic organization of society under “late-stage capitalism,” and yet it’s rare to see an honest treatment of work or money in their fiction.
Not to pick on her too much (because I quite enjoy her work), but the most prominent example is Sally Rooney, a Marxist writer whose characters drift through life from success to success and never worry about money, their class status thoroughly abstract, grounded in feelings of insecurity about manners, rather than concrete issues involving basic human needs (food, shelter, health, autonomy).
It’s a silence endemic not just to literary fiction, but to our larger literary culture. This past March, editorial assistants at large publishing houses made a week-long outcry on Twitter over their slow pace of progression, low pay, and long hours—several of them quit, very publicly.
Publishing vets were baffled: this has always been the case, for decades upon decades, so why are the assistants complaining now?
Meanwhile outsiders wondered: how can people be expected to live on these salaries?
But nobody answered: they’re not. We know they’re not. The numbers don’t add up. The typical salary for an editor at Penguin Random House is $67,000 (according to Glass Door), with entry level wages much lower than that, barely reaching $50,000. The average rent for a studio apartment in New York is, nowadays, in the $3,000 a month range (according to Zumper), making living without roommates unaffordable on an editor’s salary. That’s fine when you’re in your twenties, but many editors are well into their thirties or forties.
The truth is, we don’t know the answer to the general question, “How does an editor survive on their salary?” because, unlike with other skilled trades (doctor, lawyer, engineer, plumber, carpenter, etc), there is no typical way for an editor to survive. There is no route where an idealistic kid starts out as an editor and after some years of good performance, they find their footing and make money. Each case of someone surviving is an exception, and it requires its own explanation.
Often, the explanation involves family money or a well-off spouse. Other editors have simply embraced precarity: they have rent-stabilized apartments, and they don’t have kids, and they never go on vacation, and their retirement plan is to die at 65. And a few make a lucky score: they acquire a book that gets really big, and they can write their own ticket, negotiating for a larger than average salary.
In something like a combination of these phenomena there also exists the hereditary creative class: NYC natives whose parents were successful in the creative world and who, through a combination of family, New York-based social networks, and other privileges and/or dodges, are able to make living and working in New York viable. As Molly McGhee, the former assistant who started the publishing furor, put it in a recent tweet: “Everyone in publishing whose parents have a wikipedia page is mad at me right now.”
The same is true for writers of literary novels. We can see from the biographies of successful literary writers that almost none of them have worked in occupations outside publishing and academia. Out of 34 writers awarded—or shortlisted for—the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction since 2011, only one currently practices a profession outside the literary world (Daniel Mason, a psychiatrist), and even in their prior lives, jobs outside academia or NYC-based media were sufficiently rare that Eowyn Ivey (formerly a reporter in Wasilla, Alaska), Tommy Orange (a community college grad with a patchwork of job experience), Jennifer Egan (odd jobs in New York), Margaret Verble (a twenty-year career as a designer of training workshops) stand out as exceptions.
Literary fiction has created a fantasy world where issues of material scarcity have a vague, unreal quality.
The answer to “Why don’t literary writers work in professions outside media or academia” is a complicated one. It’s not simply that they tend to come from or marry into moneyed backgrounds (though this is a large part of it). The real answer probably has to do with the existence of academia as a catchment for writers who don’t have outside support.
Being a literary writer is a bit like belonging to a guild, and, as with a medieval guild, once you’re a master (i.e. have published a well-regarded book) the guild won’t let you fall into poverty, so long as you’re willing to take whatever academic job you can find. Moreover, it’s difficult to win a literary prize if you’re not an active part of the guild, so people who work non-guild jobs often don’t get Pulitzers in the first place.
But this still does not answer the question: “Why do literary writers not write about money and work?” After all, if we are simply saying that literary writers tend to be insulated by academia, family money, or personal connections from full-time wage labor, we’re not saying anything new. That’s always been the knock on high-brow writers. Nor are writers restricted to writing what they know: Emile Zola came from the moneyed classes and never worked outside journalism, but he still wrote extensively about all sorts of occupations.
Of course it’s certainly possible to reject my core premise and say “But there are plenty of novels about work.” Firstly, some literary writers have written about work. There are numerous novels about life in the academic precariat: Brandon Taylor’s Real Life and Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind come to mind. And books about working in publishing companies or the media or the tech industry are not uncommon. There is even the rare literary novel that is actually about someone doing a job (Kiley Reid’s Such A Fun Age or Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek, for example).
But these novels are exceptions. In most literary novels, there is little indication of how the protagonist earns a living and is able to afford their lifestyle, or if there are attempts at these indicators, it’s clear that the numbers don’t add up.
I’m thinking, for instance, of a novel I loved, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, about a thirtysomething man in New York who lives alone and doesn’t work, aside from one novel he published several years ago. At no point in the book does he worry or think about money—the implication is, somehow, he’s able to live for many years off the advance and/or royalties from his book (a ludicrous idea if you understand the economics of book advances).
So why do contemporary literary writers treat work and money as if they are mysteries, about which nothing can be spoken?
I think the answer has to do with the structure and readership of the current literary market. Literary fiction must cater to two groups. The first and smaller group is the high-brow: well credentialed academics, critics, and aspiring writers, who write and talk about books and whose opinions drive critical reputations.
But the source of sales, and the ultimate source of literary fiction’s status as the most popular of the high arts, is the middle-brow audience: the large number of college-educated people in this country who, when they read books, want books that are to some degree improving. The book-club audience, in other words.
You cannot write about life in contemporary Brooklyn if you’re not describing the family connections that get you the job or the parents who give you money to subsidize your rent.
This mostly white group does not have a voice when it comes to determining what writers receive awards and such, but they are the silent market for all literary novels published through large presses. And this group tends to be college-educated and to work in a white-collar profession. I’m talking about the lawyer in Cleveland who loves Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings or the book club in Nebraska that’s eager to discuss the latest Zadie Smith novel.
Although books need to have high-brow appeal to be published by literary presses (without it, they simply get shunted to the presses that sell “upmarket” commercial fiction), it’s also difficult for an author to sell a book to a major imprint unless it can be compared to a recent example of a book that resonated with the middle-brow audience.
Thus an author is in the difficult situation of needing to please two different audiences with different tastes. They need to write for their fellow students in the MFA and for those students’ mothers. For their English grad student roommate and for the roommate who works in marketing.
But this does not, on its face, seem to require reticence about money. After all, for the bulk of its reading, this middle-class audience tends to read commercial fiction, and commercial fiction does not shy away from questions of money and occupation.
The industry “tell-all” is almost a genre of its own at this point. Beginning with The Nanny Diaries and gaining steam with The Devil Wears Prada, these books usually show the underbelly of some glamorous female-coded profession.
Some professions have entire genres devoted to their workings: the police have the procedural; lawyers the legal thriller; doctors have medical ethics novels (mostly shelved in women’s fiction) or medical thrillers; soldiers have the war novel; spies have the spy-thriller.
Even business-people have their genre, albeit a shrinking one, that takes two forms: the business-school parable, intended to illustrate good management practices, like Elihu Goldratt’s shockingly readable The Goal or business explications of the sort Arthur Hailey or James Michener used to write.
Other genres have subcategories that cover every variety of labor: nurse romances and nurse detective stories; Greek shipping tycoon romances; librarian mysteries, etc. If you want to read about a form of labor, you can most certainly find a work of fiction where the character engages in that form of labor.
To portray life in elite institutions without any details of the privilege that make such a life possible means creating a picture that is fundamentally false.
Moreover, the demographics of commercial fiction writers give lie to the idea that it’s impossible to write a novel while holding down a full-time job. If it was, we might be able to understand why so many literary writers don’t work, but there are many commercial novelists who work full-time jobs. There are commercial writers who work in every field you can imagine. For instance, I have a friend who is an ER nurse: she wrote a series of five paranormal romance novels about an ER nurse.
In the 19th century, high-brow writers wrote freely about money and occupation (whether their own or others). In the 19th century, most of the writers we now consider to be part of the canon didn’t work for a living, and yet they had no shame in writing about their own peculiar relationship to money and work.
The essential Jane Austen plot is about a woman of good family who doesn’t have an independent income (a competence) and needs to marry well. Trollope’s The Warden is about a gentleman cleric who comes under criticism from a journalist who thinks the cleric’s handsome income comes at the expense of the superannuated poor men he ought to be caring for (Trollope famously held a job with the post office through most of his writing career). Tolstoy’s novels go deep into the intricacies of the life of the Russian landed gentry, whether it’s modernizing farming methods or the debt that comes from living in the city. Gogol’s work is often about the absurdities of life in government service. The classic Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber is about a noble Manchu family that is slowly falling out of imperial favor. Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks is about the decline of a German mercantile family. Henry James’s most accessible novel, Washington Square, is about an heiress who is being romanced by a man that her cruel father believes is only after her money. (Henry James of course wrote the passage in literature that best exemplifies American fiction’s love-hate relationship with money: the page and a half in The Ambassadors where he circles around and around the identity of “the little nameless object” whose manufacture is the source of his hero Strether’s fortune).
Generally, the problems of moneyed people come in only a few forms: excessive spending that leads to debt, which encumbers the estate and reduces future income; odd or arcane inheritance laws that mean a person used to leisure might someday become penniless; and conflict with parents over inheritances. But from these relatively few problems arose almost the entirety of 19th-century literature.
It’s worth noting that these relatively realistic treatments of money and occupation tended to be less-popular with contemporary middle-class audiences, who, when they read about the upper-classes, preferred to read “sensation novels” like Mary Elizabeth Bradley’s thrilling Lady Audley’s Secret or Charles Reade’s Griffith Gaunt.
Nor did their lack of experience with work prevent the 19th-century novelist from writing about jobs and labor! The realist or naturalist novel formed a major strain in 19th-century literature.
In Emile Zola’s best novels, a hero or heroine from the lower-class Lantier family, who are genetically prone to alcoholism and madness, is placed in some uniquely modern new industry or milieu, and they seek to build a good life for themselves, and seem at times on the cusp of success, only to be driven down inevitably into madness. La Bete Humaine features a serial killer who works on trains. L’Assommoir is about a laundry-woman married to a house-painter. The Masterpiece is about an impressionist painter (based on his childhood friend, Cezanne). The Earth is about a farmer, The Debacle is about soldiers, and so on.
Naturalism had a strong influence on American literature. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle turned America’s stomachs with its frank depictions of the meatpacking industry, and at the end its Lithuanian hero spends two chapters discussing socialism with a labor organizer. Frank Norris’s The Pit discussed the horrors of Wall Street. Stephen Crane’s Maggie, Girl of the Streets dealt with poverty.
If you write novels that treat office work entirely as an analogue of industrial capitalism, the novel will fall flat, because it is inherently untrue.
Interestingly, almost no novels in the Naturalist tradition achieved significant contemporary popularity in America. As James D. Hart put it in his history of the popular novel in America, The Jungle, for all its influence, was less widely sold than “Winston Churchill’s Coniston, a mild novel of reform published the same year.” Hart writes, “Not until the publication of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath in 1939 was a so-called proleterian novel widely enough read for the working class to be aware of it.”
And during this time, the “success novels” of Horatio Alger, about striving youth who achieve wealth and fame, dramatically outsold Naturalist novels. The new middle-class also loved to read depictions of bucolic country life like Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and when they took up a social novel, they preferred a strange setting (Anna Karenina proved very popular in translation) or a fantastic or romantic element (Edward Bellamy’s proto-sci-fi Looking Backwards was a huge best-seller).
Here we see the dichotomy between middle-brow and high-brow reading tastes. Although the books from this period that were taken up by critics and academics are full of realistic discussion of money and occupation, these themes were not at all popular amongst contemporary readers even in the late 19th century. Even readers interested in social reform and progress preferred nonfiction: Henry George’s Progress and Poverty (advocating a single tax on land) sold two million copies between 1877 and 1905.
And that dichotomy continues to this day. In today’s modern commercial categories, you’ll note that with one exception (crime fiction), the job is rarely a nexus of soul-crushing horror. Even in The Devil Wears Prada, the assistant eventually gains some respect for her glamorous profession (though that’s less true in the novel than in the film). And in crime fiction, although the characters are often in dire financial straits, they almost immediately break free into Romanticism and take action to change their lives.
Whereas in literary novels, whether they deal with the manners of the genteel or with working-class factory life, work is almost uniformly treated with horror. Gentlepeople will do anything to avoid work (the beginning of Trollope’s Can You Ever Forgive Her? centers on a gently-born clerk who keeps begging the crown to let him keep his salary without having to go to the office three days a week to earn it), and when work is depicted, it’s shown as remorseless and soul-crushing, a la Zola or Steinbeck.
The Naturalist novel and the classic 19th-century comedy of manners about the money woes of genteel people were buried by the same phenomenon—the Great Depression and the World Wars meant that the rich were no longer as rich; the post-war boom meant the poor were no longer as poor. As Thomas Piketty ably documented in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the difference in wealth between the richest and the poorest was lower in the middle of the 20th century than it had ever been in the West.
Moreover, university enrollment exploded as a result of this new equality, and college gave more people a taste for highbrow fiction. Thus, as the 20th century progressed, you had more middle-class people looking for high culture, and this resulted in unique problems. Fiction was still being written by people from the upper tiers of society, but now it was being read by people in the lower tiers.
At the time, Dwight McDonald’s classic essay, “Masscult and Midcult,” bemoaned the rise of a dumbed down “middlebrow” literature, that allows middle-class people to feel as if they’re gaining the benefits of high culture, and it called out precisely this bland quality in contemporary literature.
In the 1950s and 60s, the closest heir to naturalism amongst (relatively) high-brow literature was the tide of novels about what William Whyte called “Organization Men”—people, usually men, who’d been demolished and rendered soulless and gray by life in contemporary firms and corporations.
The best of these is probably Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, about two would-be bohemians, April and Frank Wheeler, whose brightness is extinguished by suburban life. And this run of books finally established the dominant myth of modern office work: it’s really, really, really tedious and boring.
Unlike meatpacking or fruit-picking or the subjects of previous naturalist novels, office life seemed inherently undramatic to the literary writer, and in a highbrow culture steeped in disdain for money and for industrial life, and one furthermore in which most of its participants didn’t work, it was difficult to treat the setting with respect.
Moreover, the problem with writing naturalistically about the office is that your subject might actually read your book! And that means you’re on much trickier terrain. After all, the office worker usually wants to be an office worker. They have chosen this path, rather than painting houses or working on an assembly line.
In literary novels, whether they deal with the manners of the genteel or with working-class factory life, work is almost uniformly treated with horror.
If you write novels that treat office work entirely as an analogue of industrial capitalism, the novel will fall flat, because it is inherently untrue: office workers, in theory, have a level of freedom that factory workers do not; an office worker could quit and enter the factory, while the reverse isn’t true (insofar as late capitalism values credentials over experience-based skills).
The solution is obvious: simply write about office work as it actually is. Write about the things people want from the office. Write about people asking for raises, seeking promotions, maneuvering for preferment.
Some literary novelists followed this route. Perhaps ironically, Louis Auchincloss—the last, with Gore Vidal, of the high society writers—was one writer who wrote serious fiction about the inner workings of white-collar enterprises.
In this, he was treading the same path as a number of commercial writers who wrote sincere, non-satirical books about office life. My favorite of these was Cameron Hawley, a writer who produced five novels during the 1950s and 60s about the intricacies of business deals. His best was Executive Suite, about five men vying to fill the place of a recently deceased executive at their company. Hawley had personal experience of these matters: he worked for the Armstrong Cork Company in South Dakota for 24 years before retiring to write books.
What Hawley and Auchincloss did that few literary writers are willing to do is to write about businessmen who want to be businessmen. These are people who take their jobs seriously, and who derive most of their meaning and identity from these jobs. To them, getting that promotion is a matter of utmost importance.
And yet, it’s not at all clear that this is what people actually want to read. As we’ve seen from 19th-century novels, frank treatments of money and class were not popular amongst the middle-class. And while they might be popular amongst the literate tastemakers, here the prospective writer runs into some issues.
The main one is that the money problems of the prospective writer cannot be divulged without alienating the middle-brow audience. A typical writer worries about the two-body problem (finding an academic job near their spouse) or about how to divide up an inheritance from selling their grandma’s house or about how to flatter and network their way into a good critical reputation.
And although an honest novel about these issues would interest other people in our world, it would be of no interest to the middle-brow audience, which prefers, when it reads about moneyed urbanites, to read aspirational tales (a la Bridget Jones’s publishing job or Carrie Bradshaw’s newspaper column)
What makes literary fiction unique today is that, to a large extent, its commercial success depends on being relatable to a middle-class audience. It is about middle-class people who have middle-class jobs and have middle-class problems. And literary writers themselves often have lives that are similar to these middle-brow readers—they live in similar neighborhoods, in similar cities, went to similar colleges, and have similar attitudes to love, friendship, and family. But they differ in one key area: money and occupation.
Literary writers have learned how to write about the parts of the human experience—love, marriage, family, friendship, parenthood—that are least structured, at least in their internal dynamics, by wealth and occupation.
If literary novelists happen to come from a world wholly alien to their reader, then discussing money and occupation is simple. Workers from marginalized backgrounds can produce works about poor people. Those from farming families can write about the farm. Those from other countries are free to write about the economic realities of life at home.
But the money and occupational problems of most literary writers are simply not relatable to these readers, since they often entail navigating some form of economic privilege, and even if they don’t, literary writers usually don’t work in traditional workplaces, with set hours and limited autonomy (though university adjuncts are a notable exception, and this is an area that’s already produced some fine novels and memoirs).
Thus, literary writers have learned how to write about the parts of the human experience—love, marriage, family, friendship, parenthood—that are least structured, at least in their internal dynamics, by wealth and occupation, and because of this their books can be read by book clubs, and they can be embraced by the school-teacher in Omaha or the engineer in Charleston.
However, as a result, literary fiction has created a fantasy world where issues of material scarcity have a vague, unreal quality. In their fiction, literary writers often draw upon details from their own world of expensive urban neighborhoods, prep schools, elite colleges, and university graduate departments, but in order to be relatable to the reader they have to leave out all the things—whether it is family/spousal money or early/precocious success—that would make life in these worlds livable.
This is how you can have a novel like Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, which ends on such a terrible note, with the scholarship kid going on to have a sad and unsuccessful life. It’s because the things that would’ve made her happy—precocious writing success, informed by and influenced by her life amongst the wealthy—were the essence of the difference between her life and Sittenfeld’s own life.
To portray life in elite institutions without any details of the privilege that make such a life possible means creating a picture that is fundamentally false, particularly when it focuses on the details of how people make money and where they live.
You cannot write about life in contemporary Brooklyn if you’re not describing the family connections that get you the job or the parents who give you money to subsidize your rent. Moreover, to leave those things out is to create a false picture of how life operates: it’s to create the image that there are virtuous middle-class editorial assistants who can survive on what they’re paid. Because absent the details of how money operates in these spheres, the typical reader is going to imagine that it operates in a way similar to their own life, whereas the reality is usually quite different.
And yet what is the alternative? Literary writers know that if they wrote about money and occupation in the way that the writers of a previous age did—either by detailing the true details of their own lives or by attacking and satirizing the lives of others—they would forgo the chance at middle-brow readership.
And to write about money and occupation in the ways that a middle-brow readership might respond to (with serious thought to the internal dynamics of occupation), in the way that Arthur Hailey or James Michener or Cameron Hawley did, goes against everything the typical literary writer has been taught or has experienced.
The only solution is to avoid these topics entirely. Thus, the money-less, class-less, occupation-less fantasy-land will continue to be the go-to setting for most literary writers.
As artists are so fond of reminding us, we live under late-stage capitalism, and in this system, you can write anything—you can even express hatred of the capitalist system itself—so long as your hatred is marketable. And when it’s unmarketable, such as when it contains uncomfortable truths about the underpinnings of a system that middle-brow readers have bought into, then it simply doesn’t get published.