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’.


14 comments on “Who Wants To Read About Work, Work, Work?”

  1. Linda atres says:

    The company who employs me shall remain nameless,but sometimes I think that if I wrote done some of the things that happen it would seem too far fetched.Even to far for fiction.lol

  2. Linda atres says:

    Oops too far

  3. Stephen says:

    I work for a certain retailer and the way they are carrying on at the moment, is beyond belief.

  4. admin says:

    Damn, no details!

  5. Brooke says:

    Let’s not forget “Dilbert” cartoons, which originated as a story about working life in a large public utility company.
    And if you’re looking for fiction about life at work, may I point you to the business section of any major bookstore, Amazon’s best seller list and my fave, Harvard Business Review.

  6. Stephen says:

    Some details then. Firstly,trying to run shops with less and less staff. Secondly,expecting us to come in on certain days even if we’re on holiday. To me a holiday means you don’t go near work even if you’re at home.

  7. Trace Turner says:

    I have worked for an office furniture company for many years (not in sales!) and I have seen first hand the trends and changes in office space. Businesses have been able to reduce space because of technology. The flat screen monitor and wireless connections have made cubicles shrink and even disappear. Many employees don’t have a space dedicated to them but use that is available to anyone in a concept called hoteling.
    Technology also gets more work out of fewer people – good bye typing pools and data processing departments.
    But since our office is also a showroom, I always have new furniture and a comfortable chair.

  8. Vivienne says:

    I started work in a Bristow era office. There was an air of eternity: if you behaved, you could stay on till retirement. I used to type letters with sometimes eight carbon copies, which all had to be corrected if I made a mistake. So every department had a copy and there would be someone to file it. Even to me it seems unbelievable now.

  9. Charles (another one) says:

    I liked the flexible offices at the BBC portrayed in the recent documentary series ‘W1A’ where the new set-up get subtly subverted and a traditional office is gradually re-created by a series of happy accidents within the much vaunted hot desking set-up.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    I taught with someone who was upset because she didn’t get a key to the building so she could come in during weekends and ahead of school starting. We could come in ahead of school starting but only if the custodian was working. *He* had a key.

  11. Joel says:

    The workplace becomes madder, badder and much more dangerous as managements separate from reality, when externally-trained, internally-incomprehensible whizz-babies arrive to ‘modernise’, to be deliverers of change. And alter the language of work so that no-one knows why they’re doing what they’re now paid for.

    My last (I hope) paid work before retirement was in a safety-critical transport control room, which really needed at least three years’ operational experience before anyone could start to learn how to control a transport system, to deliver it safely and reliably.

    Then it (any workplace) became overtly profit driven, with outsiders lacking operational experience arriving (believing computers can do everything), then people whose faces (and attitudes) fit replaced those with experience, mostly because the latter are now too expensive and harm profits. That and showing up the ‘newbies’ for their ignorance, a recipe for disciplinaries and dismissals.

    I’m glad I’m out of it, driven out of a job I had once loved, replaced because I did know what I was doing (most of the time)

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Joel, the resident expert here says you sound oh, so familiar. Our sympathies, because driving people out o jobs they understand and enjoy benefits no one.

  13. Wayne Mook says:

    I have the curse of being able to create and understand blue sky thinking and so can understand the rubbish going on, so I was told I have been up skilled and with a flexibly blended approach that has kept the up skilling requirements fresh when previous lines of business downtimes especially when they coincided with predicted alternative peak periods meant a practical deskilling and loss of time due to creating re-familiarisation processes. In short we used to be switched from job to job and had training when needed, now I do both jobs at the same time so I should not need training because there will not be a big gap between doing the 2 jobs.


  14. Debbie Ryan says:

    Enma Ochoa (Richard) from venezeula re Floris chocolates please contact me its debbie I do remember you from Floris of course (Funny Face) Miss Floris still and still miss you.

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