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July 16, 2007

Workaday Worlds

A frequent complaint about about contemporary fiction, or at least stories which aspire to become contemporary fiction, is that characters don’t work. Whereas in the past, work might have dominated the narrative (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning comes to mind), modern characters’ lives take place after hours. Interesting to note that two exceptions I’ve just thought of are about doctors: Saturday and Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. I don’t know what that means, however these doctors’ idle contemporaries tend to be artists, academics, or documentary filmmakers, and their work is usually peripheral. Or so it’s been said, but when I think back to the last nineteenth century novel I read (The Portrait of a Ladylast week, of course) nobody there did anything either, save for Henrietta Stackpole. And granted Henrietta’s vocation did give her character particular appeal, and I realize James perhaps is a class thing, and these are all just thoughts to think about. Woolf’s working characters were not usually at the forefront of her novels (or if they were, only subtly so ala Lily Briscoe, though of course she was an artist, which brings us back to the beginning). Many characters in books I read, particularly classics, seem to be bankers, but this tends to entail nothing beyond leaving the house in the morning and coming home in the eve.

I have two things to say about all these unformed thoughts, the first being that though none of this is new, what might be new is how positively unremarkable most modern jobs actually are. I cannot imagine what sort of narrative would grow up around the job I’m doing these days, or many I’ve had in the past. Prosaic is not even the word for many jobs around– mind numbing, soul destroying, base and boring. I am fortunate that such is NOT my experience at the moment, but think of how many people must work in call centres. Think of all the stories that will never be written about call centres. I am not terribly convinced this is a bad thing.

The second thing is that Lionel Shriver, like my very favourite Margaret Drabble, always keeps her characters occupied. An anthropologist in The Female of the Species; pro-tennis players in Double Fault; illustrater, think-tankian, snooker player, variously in The Post-Birthday World; travel guide writer and advertising location scout in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Their occupations make Shriver’s characters whole, their worlds rich, and give their stories legs to stand on. Her details are so fascinating, and I can’t think of how much learning it must have taken to acquire them.

One thought on “Workaday Worlds”

  1. Rebecca Rosenblum says:

    Ah, my central issue at the moment. My opinion changes weekly, but lately I have been seeing this as a class issue. People whose work does not shape and define their lives *might* be working at boring jobs and seeking fulfillment elsewhere. But I strongly suspect that if work does not colour one’s day and self-definition, for good or ill, it’s because the money that comes from it is somehow less relevant. The jobs I’ve hated most I’ve *needed* most (that’s why I stayed), and there weren’t many moments when I wasn’t profoundly aware of that. And for right now, I can’t write characters who don’t experience the world of work the same way.

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