Fiction set in the corporate world: why is it so hard?

A confession: I work forty hours a week in a glass-walled office which forms part of London’s corporate world. Most of the time I enjoy my job. My colleagues are largely extremely congenial and many of them have become good friends. It is an environment in which I am both extremely competent and at home. Yet when I try to write fiction about that world in which I spend half of my waking life, and which interests me, and in which I have been immersed for the last eight years, I fail.

That failure frustrates me. Not least because many people who read books work in similar offices, in open plan spaces, with photocopiers and coffee machines dotted around, and (mais bien sûr) water coolers. Some of you, I’m sure, hate that environment. Most of you find it relatively pleasant, even exciting, day-to-day.

Surely if there were good fiction set in the corporate world we would be interested to read it. More importantly, if good writing aims to deal with all aspects of life, then excluding the environment in which millions of adults spend so much of their time and which shapes most people’s concerns far more than most arenas do is an admission of failure by the literary world.

I went hunting for novels that have the corporate at their core.

The Bonfire of the Vanities is, of course, the prime example. Elsewhere on my shelves I found The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid and David Lodge’s Nice Work. Jonathan Franzen gets close with the perils of pharmaceutical company investments in The Corrections. Otherwise, in my made up category of corporate literary fiction, pickings on my otherwise overflowing bookshelves are decidedly thin.

And so to the internet. Google offers a list of ‘25 Best Business Novels’. At number one comes The Godfather, followed by American Psycho. Mafia and off-duty Wall Street trader-cum-serial killer: the former hardly corporate; the latter hardly straight literary fiction. The only other well-known novel on the list was The Great Gatsby: ‘Explore greed, money, and ambition in the pursuit of the American Dream’. Business world setting? Yes, at a (considerable) stretch. Corporate America? No.

So it seems that it isn’t just me.

Received wisdom blames a lack of experience of ‘the corporate’ in the literary world. Partly that seems to be true. Certainly knowledge helps. BotV in part works because it is packed with Wall Street-specific minutiae. Wolfe was a reporter before he was a novelist, and it shows. Here is life on the trading floor:

          [Sherman] turned the corner, and there it was: the bond trading room of Pierce & Pierce. It was a vast space, perhaps sixty by eighty feet, but with the same eight-foot ceiling bearing down on your head. It was an oppressive space with a ferocious glare, writhing silhouettes, and the roar. The glare came from a wall of plate glass that faced south, looking out over New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty, Staten Island, and the Brooklyn and New Jersey shores. The writhing silhouettes were the arms and torsos of young men, few of them older than forty. They had their suit jackets off. They were moving about in an agitated manner and shouting, which created the roar. It was the sound of well-educated young white men baying for money on the bond market.

          ‘Pick up the fucking phone, please!’ a chubby, pink-faced member of the Harvard class of 1976 screamed at someone two rows of desks away. The room was like a newspaper room in that there were no partitions and no signs of visible rank. Everyone sat at light gray metal desks in front of veal-coloured computer terminals with black screens. Row of green-diode letters and numbers came skidding across.

          ‘I said please pick up the fucking phone! I mean holy shit!’ There were dark half-moons in the armpits of his shirt, and the day had just begun.

Hamid also knows his stuff. He was a management consultant before being shortlisted for the Booker. He knows how to do a company valuation and due diligence. He knows the culture clash between westernised MBA-clad Pakistani in an American boutique financial firm and daily life in a Third World city:

To determine how much [the company] was actually worth, we worked around the clock for over a month. We interviewed suppliers, employees, and experts of all kinds; we passed hours in closed rooms with accountants and lawyers; we gathered gigabytes of data; we compared indicators of performance to benchmarks; and, in the end, we built a complex financial model with innumerable permutations. I spent much of my time in front of my computer, but I also visited the factory floor and several music shops. I felt enormously powerful on these outings, knowing my team was shaping the future. Would these workers be fired? Would these CDs be made elsewhere? We, indirectly, of course, would help decide.

Yet there were moments when I became disorientated. I remember one such occasion in particular. I was riding with my colleagues in a limousine. We were mired in traffic, unable to move, and I glanced out the window to see, only a few feet away, the driver of a jeepney returning my gaze. There was an undisguised hostility in his expression; I had no idea why. We had not met before – of that I was virtually certain – and in a few minutes we would probably never see each other again. But his dislike was so obvious, so intimate, that it got under my skin. I stared back at him, getting angry myself…and I maintained eye contact until he was obliged by the movement of the car in front to return his attention to the road.

Afterwards, I tried to understand why he acted as he did. Perhaps, I thought, his wife has just left him; perhaps he resents me for the privileges implied by my suit and expensive car; perhaps he simply does not like Americans. I remained preoccupied with this matter far longer than I should have, pursuing several possibilities that all assumed – as their unconscious starting point – that he and I shared a sort of Third World sensibility. Then one of my colleagues asked me a question, and when I turned to answer him, something rather strange took place. I looked at him – at his fair hair and light eyes and, most of all, his oblivious immersion in the minutiae of our work – and thought, you are so foreign. I felt in that moment much closer to the Filipino driver than to him; I felt I was play-acting when in reality I ought to be making my way home, like the people outside.

Knowledge of subject matter clearly helps; and I would bet on Hamid having experienced that scene first-hand. But knowledge is not all: corporate life causes more problems for novelists than do other professional settings in which most literary writers are similarly inexperienced. Convincing medical, forensic and legal novels abound.

Anyway, knowledge is not my problem. I also know that world. This, instead, is where I came out:

First: the corporate often seems intangible. In the head office of a multinational corporation the solid reality of the effects of the business is a very long way away. (Even further if I use the bland trade acronym ‘MNC’.) Numbers in spreadsheets affect and sometimes stand for livelihoods and dreams. But at a smoothly running HQ there are no illnesses, accidents, crimes, divorces, personal bankruptcy or big old Death.

But it’s easy enough to get round that: add a hit-and-run killing if you’re Wolfe and a cross-cultural love story if you’re Hamid and the corporate is humanised soon enough.

More problematic if we move from cameo role to centre-stage is finding what the essence of the corporate actually is. If we put aside the simplistic ideological hatred evinced by so many writers’ passing references, what would we be writing about?

Here’s my pitch:

The corporate is a powerful force. It inspires incomprehension, envy, dedication and awe. It fills me with adrenalin, and eight years on still piques my interest.  So how about elucidating that? How about showing the faith in data-driven rationality and professionalism?

The corporate deals in the rational, fiction in the emotional and spiritual. Literary fiction should be possible where the corporate ideal breaks down, where there is a clash between abstract and solid, rational and spell-binding. To show that breakdown, good writing must also with integrity show that clean, rational ideal. The corporate deserves more than a caricature.

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