Saturday, January 16, 2010

`Actually Lived By Most People'

As a newspaper reporter I learned that two subjects might open the mouths and memories of recalcitrant interviewees – their families and work. People love talking about what they do – bragging and complaining -- especially when they’re good at it and enjoy the work. Work is central to most of our lives.

A writer new to me, Alain de Botton, has written a brief essay, “The Enlightening Bridge Between Art and Work,” about the absence of work in contemporary literature. His explanation is that technology has alienated most of us, including writers and other artists, from the means of production. We have little idea how our world works. Botton writes:

“How ignorant most of us are by contrast, surrounded by machines and processes of which we have only the loosest grasps; we who know nothing about gantry cranes and iron-ore bulk carriers, who register the economy only as a set of numbers, who think — even now — that it is only about money, who have avoided close study of switch gears and wheat storage and spare ourselves closer acquaintance with the manufacturing protocols for tensile steel cable.”

All of this is true but not convincing. Closer to the truth is this comment by Frank Wilson, from whom I borrowed the link: “What this really is about is the extent to which art has become divorced from life as it actually lived by most people.”

“Artists,” of course, have become a class apart, abetted by the privileged insulation of universities. That art is not “about” life – and thus work – is an article of faith among too many artists. My consumption of contemporary fiction is limited, but the last recent novel with memorable accounts of industry I recall reading is American Pastoral. Glovemaking, as described by Roth, of course, no longer exists.

I’ve always enjoyed reading about jobs and procedures, even the parts of Moby-Dick devoted to whaling that tire many readers. John Williams’ Stoner is a novel about teaching English in a university, Zola’s The Belly of Paris is about preparing and selling food, and Ulysses is about an advertising canvasser. Part of the charm of the Parker novels by Richard Stark (the late Donald Westlake) is how they document the work of a thief, his competence and cunning (in this, at least, Parker shares something with Odysseus).

I came home to find Frank’s link after working all day in the special-education centers in two public schools. In the first, an angry 7-year-old scratched the back of my right hand and wrist until they bled. At the other, a 17-year-old punched me on the top of my head (not a good target) and slapped the side of my neck, after he had thrown much of his lunch at me. I love my work.


David Foster said...

You might enjoy this post & discussion on Business Fiction:

I especially recommend Linda Niemann's memoir on railroading, which isn't a novel but has considerable literary quality. My review here:

Bob said...

This post of mine might be of interest as well:

Every College a Farm, Every College a Manufactory


WAS said...

To me, contemporary writing is too much about work: the difficulty wrestling words into fixed meanings, the demands and naivete of students, the impossibility of teaching taste.

I write about my work a lot, but I try to put a spin on it that gives it a meaning beyond just something you get paid for doing. You do that, too, Patrick. The problem for the solipsistic kept men of today's universities is that they obsess on their job because they seem to be desperately trying to convince themselves of a higher calling in what they get paid to do.

Professional fiction writers, as you allude, are better at the details of livelihoods because they know something we spend most of our waking lives doing is of relevance and interest--no need for transcendence.