Who Wants To Read About Work, Work, Work?
This week saw the death of Frank William Huline Dickens, creator of Bristol, a cartoon strip which ran for 41 years in the Evening Standard – a world record. Bristol was a little everyman at a desk, working for a vast faceless corporation. The character successfully transferred to stage, radio and TV, with Freddie Jones playing Bristow. I liked the firm’s chef Gordon Blue, who watched in horror as the employees threw ketchup onto his carefully crafted meals.
There should be a sub-category of fiction to cover books and media set in bureaucratic offices. We could start with Kafka, of course, and Keith Waterhouse. In the latter’s novel ‘Office Life’, an employee sets out to discover what his company actually does, and is shocked to realise they do nothing but make more work for other companies in order to fulfil an illusion of industry. I think he was the first to come up with this idea, which has since been picked up by several different authors.
Books about offices are different to ones about working, the best of which would include ‘Nickeled and Dimed’ by Barbara Ehrenreich and Studs Terkel’s ‘Working’.
Which office books should be on your reading list? Michael Frayn’s hilarious ‘Toward The End Of The Morning’, Joseph Heller’s ‘Something Happened’, Sloan Wilson’s ‘The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit’, Richard Yates’s ‘Revolutionary Road,’ Joshua Ferris’s ‘Then We Came To The End’, Ed Park’s ‘Personal Days’, Tom Rachman’s ‘The Imperfectionists’, Max Barry’s ‘Company’, possibly Dave Eggers’ ‘The Circle’, although I find him hard to read, and ‘Disrupted’ by Dan Lyons.
The problem is that most people don’t want to read about the day-to-day minutiae of jobs when reading is used as an escape. And as John Lanchester points out, you can’t explain the complexity of modern working lives in fiction. Nor would you want to – but interesting twists on that great chunk of so many people’s lives can make for fascinating reading.
As for film is was traditionally regarded as a subject to be avoided, because the prime audience for movies is the pre-career crowd. ‘Office Life’ and ‘9 to 5’ stand out.
I’ve tackled a fantastical version of office life a few times, notably in the novel ‘Breathe’ and in ‘The Bureau of Lost Souls’, out as an e-book on October 28th along with ‘City Jitters’, ‘Sharper Knives’ and ‘Flesh Wounds’.