Posted by: Corri van de Stege | October 7, 2008

Great Wealth Leads to Great Art (Books?)

Great wealth leads to great art.


Recently I have been wondering about the fact that there seem to be few books, and I mean novels, fiction, about working in high finance and what it’s like to be in a high pressured job at the beginning of the 21st Century.  I cannot think of many this side of the Atlantic,  although there are a number of TV series such as The Office that satirise relationships,  but there are few novels about the reality of working life and the pressures that puts on relationships between couples and friends and parents and children.  We read about it daily in the newspapers, usually reflecting on an underclass and children who  miss out on their ‘emotional well-being’ because both parents work and then a little later you get another article that says exactly the opposite. 


Then I came across the article by William Skidelsky in a special section  of the Observer last Sunday, on the 2008 crash.  Unfortunately I cannot find the link for you  as this is a separate section that is not listed on the web.  In this article, Skidelsky says that ‘the lives of the rich and powerful have always fascinated writers.  Yet no one has yet effectively chronicled the excesses of the 21st century.’  This strikes a chord, it reflects my own thoughts.  He says that it seems odd that ‘the financial haymaking that has been going on in recent times has largely escaped the attention of writers.’   Skidelsky thinks that the most probably reason is that the modern finance world is so complex and difficult that few writers would want to tackle it.  And that makes me think how a lot of full-time writers as a matter of fact often have little real life experience of the working world around them, which indeed has become hugely complex and difficult, so that the ones who try and deal with it through their day to day work clearly have not got the time to write about it in fiction terms.  As Skidelsky says ‘What lawyers and doctors get up to is broadly known and has a basic drama we all can relate to.  But few of us can understand, let alone sympathise with, the issues that cause bankers to break out in sweats.’


He also notes that in Britain there is a long standing aversion to writing about business.  And he’s right, it’s probably considered dirty, too removed from the world of creativity and art, although David Lodge has tried to tackle it in the past (Nice Work).  This is different in America, which is more hardnosed and Skidelsky mentions a few writers who do write about the subject, such as Philip Roth in American Pastoral (wich includes an account of factory life).  I must now put some of the others quoted in this article on my tbr list and it is fascinating to think that perhaps someone somewhere now has got the time to tackle this subject.  After all, we’ve had a whole raft of authors writing about terrorism and the aftermath of 9/11.  Someone somewhere should be writing about the Credit Crunch and its aftermath and what it was like to live through the riches of the previous decade.


So, for the time being I’ll try and get hold of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.  Have you read these books?  Have you reviewed them?



  1. Hmm. Interesting point. First, I am one among thousands who own a copy of “Infinite Jest” yet have not read it. The one book I can think of that may fit the description you’ve laid out is “Then We Came to the End” by Joshua Ferris. It was nominated for, and I think may have won the National Book Award in the US. The story is told in the 1st person plural and is about a group of characters in an advertising agency during the 2000-2001 dot-com implosion. Oddly, I am one of the few who didn’t really care of it all that much, BUT I have to qualify that opinion by disclosing that I work for a start-up company in the telecommunications industry that barely escaped going under in what we now refer to as “black September” — coincidentally, we let go (made redundant — I love English expressions) about 50 of our total company of 100 in September of 2001, prior to 9/11. I completely identified with the environment and the characters in “Then We Came to the End” and perhaps that made me find it oddly unpleasant. For some reason, I’ve never wanted to write about the business in which I find myself (and I’ve seen some crazy maneuvering that’s part and parcel of working in a privately held small company), I suppose because it never seemed a good enough subject — that it wouldn’t be interesting. But to your point, I think we all “get” what it’s like to teach literature at a university and we’ve got more than enough novels about writers, don’t we. Hmm. Thanks for the great food for thought.

  2. Lisa – look forward to reading your next book! 🙂 and glad I made you think of it. I have not read Joshua Ferres, have heard of it, but will now definitely get a copy and read it. I suppose, if it is unpleasant, you could always make it a Kafka-eske story, bringing out the unpleasantness of it all?? Just a thought. Yes, sometimes it does feel that people go on writing about the same thing as if life has not changed so fundamentally embroiled in quite different work environments.

  3. Hi – glad my article chimed with your own thoughts. I mentioned Infinite Jest in the piece but I should point out it is not really about business: it just paints a picture of a corporatised America of the future…But Cosmopolis is undoubtedly about a currency trader!
    Your blog looks interesting.
    Best, Will

  4. Really… you’re right. There’s not a lot of current stuff. I track novels about NYC as a rule and while a lot are fluff and stuff, some go deep. But, a book on bankers, etc. Now, Louis Auchincloss, if he were up to it (and current), could do a lovely novel on it. Hmmm…

  5. Will: It’s very nice to see you here! As the story unfolds futher across news screens and in paper headlines there must be someone somewhere out there writing the story of a lifetime…
    Oh: Perhaps you want to have a go?

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