Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Work Lit

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Work Lit

Many of the reviews I’ve received for my books so far have made some reference to the idea that I tend to write about people who work for a living. I’m not complaining – honestly, I’m delighted that enough such reviews exist to be able to spot a trend, and complaining is verboten, anyway – but it does sometimes feel as though I am being singled out for having discovered an exotic tribe, a strange subculture of people whose life rhythms are dictated by work schedules and the arrival of paycheques.

I don’t mean to sound naïve – it’s not exactly a surprise to me that I have a thing for Jill and Johnny Lunchbreak. It’s just that it’s not a deliberate choice. I don’t start out by having characters spending the winter swimming in Italy, only to scrap that plan and plunk them all in office cubicles. As soon as I start writing anything, I quickly feel the urge to situate characters in some kind of work context. It’s the literary equivalent of the Toronto greeting: “So, what do you do?” I get to know my characters by figuring out what they do to pay rent/bills/mortgages. As much as I can enjoy reading about the idle rich, I rarely enjoy writing about them. Though sometimes that can be fun, too – there are a few upper-middle-class characters in my new book, but tellingly, they mostly come off as a-holes. Maybe I’m a class warrior, after all.

I thought about all this while reading Jason Arthur’s essay on The Millions about a few recent literary novels that eschew the idea of living paycheque-to-paycheque, and about what he sees as a dearth of stories that grapple with the idea of work and class:

Of course, artful idleness is pretty much the stuff of the modern novel. Sure Leopold Bloom had a job, but Ulysses is a decidedly post-quitting-time novel. And sure buying flowers ain’t easy and Big Ben strikes the hours, but Clarissa Dalloway never once clocked in. The Blooms and Dalloways of our time, Ben Lerner’s Adam Gordon or Teju Cole’s Julius, say, smoke hash and stalk “life’s white machine” and/or reboot the flâneur for a globalized present.

Such aestheticized idleness is likewise a key feature of what Nicholas Dames calls “throwback fiction,” ambitious novels set in the 1970s. Novelists are drawn to this decade because, among other things, it “lacks the unbearable, compulsory dynamism we live under” and thus allows stories to be “ruminative rather than dynamic.” It allows novelists to write 1000-page novels about a super-particular time and place (à la Hallberg’s City on Fire).

I have some objections to Arthur’s argument. For one thing, the many ways Leopold Bloom spends his day avoiding his soul-killing job is part of the comedy of Ulysses. And similarly, that Clarissa Dalloway is consumed with the preparations for a boring, upper-class party is a narrative feature, not a bug. I would not call either of them a flâneur - they are both too unsettled for that. In both cases, the absence of meaningful, fulfilling work creates much of the narrative tension. (But not all, obviously: Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway are not thinly veiled Marxist critiques.)

All the same, it’s interesting for a critic to call out contemporary literature in this way, and to note the ways some writers choose to retreat from current economic realities rather than grapple with them.



The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Nathan Whitlock

Nathan Whitlock’s award-winning fiction and non-fiction has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Post, Toronto Life, Report on Business, Flare, Fashion, Geist, Maisonneuve, and Best Canadian Essays, and he has appeared on radio and television discussing books and culture. He is a contributing editor for Quill & Quire. He lives in Toronto with his wife and children.

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