Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Data-Entry Supervisor

Expand Messages
  • Orlando Döhring
    Portrait of the Artist as a Young Data-Entry Supervisor It s time for an ambitious new literature of the office By Alain de Botton | May 31, 2009 Without
    Message 1 of 2 , Jun 1, 2009

      Portrait of the Artist as a Young Data-Entry Supervisor

      It's time for an ambitious new literature of the office

      By Alain de Botton  |  May 31, 2009

      Without quite grasping the extent of our debt, we rely on writers to help explain the world to us. It's they who give us a feel for what it's like to fall in love, who give us words for describing the landscape around us, and who help us interpret the dynamics of our families. Such is their power that we can name whole slices of experience with adjectives built of their names. We speak of encountering, sometimes in the most unlikely settings, dynamics most succinctly described as "Proustian," "Austenesque," and "Kafkan." Writers are our map-makers.

      However, many contemporary writers are notably silent about a key area of our lives: our work. If a proverbial alien landed on earth and tried to figure out what human beings did with their time simply on the evidence of the literature sections of a typical bookstore, he or she would come away thinking that we devote ourselves almost exclusively to leading complex relationships, squabbling with our parents, and occasionally murdering people. What is too often missing is what we really get up to outside of catching up on sleep, which is going to work at the office, store, or factory.

      It used to be a central ambition of novelists to capture the experience of working life. From Balzac to Zola, Dickens to Kafka, they evoked the dynamism and the beauty, the horror and the tedium of the workplace. Their books covered the same territory as is today featured at copious length in the financial pages of newspapers or in the breathless commentaries of the 24-hour newscasters, but their interest was not primarily financial. The goal was to convey the human side of commerce, where money is only one actor in a complex drama about our ambitions and reversals.

      Yet today's writers seem to be losing their nerve. There has been an unfortunate inward turn. Attention, brilliant though it might be, too often falls merely on the domestic and the natural. Consider some of the great Booker Prize-winning fiction writers of the last two decades: Anne Enright, John Banville, Yann Martel, Peter Carey, Kazuo Ishiguro - fine writers and deserving winners, yet all of them writing to one side of the working realm. The territory of the novel seems inevitably to be defined by the domestic subject matter tackled by Pulitzer Prize-winning writers like Anne Tyler or Michael Cunningham. When a new writer like Joshua Ferris does finally devote a novel to tracking the antics inside a corporation, the critical reaction is peculiar and telling: he attracts renown and praise for his courage in tackling the fresh and entirely unexpected subject matter of going to the office.

      Beyond the page, work remains at the center of our identities. It is hard to have a conversation with a stranger for more than a few minutes before needing to ask, "What do you do?" - for herein lie clues not only to monetary status, but more broadly to one's entire outlook and character. The literary silence is puzzling and regrettable, for it denies us the chance collectively to honor the excitement of work as well as to reconcile ourselves (through laughter and tragedy) to its inequities.

      The reasons for this neglect are not to hard to guess at. Firstly, there is a problem of experience. Young writers are always advised to write of what they know about, and such is the specialized and dedicated nature of the modern economy that it can be very hard to know of anything besides what it's like to be a writer. Our authors know about casual jobs taken while waiting for a manuscript to be looked at in New York, but they are less familiar with a 40-year-long view down the tunnel of a career.

      To compound the issue, it's become extraordinarily challenging to get into businesses in order to write about them. Most now employ squadrons of PR staff, who let in only handpicked financial journalists and assiduously reject suspect poets or novelists who might cause trouble. When writing my latest book exploring workplaces with a novelistic eye, I had 20 rejections for every one acceptance. I was asked if I might sign non-disclosure forms and later send my text in to be checked by in-house lawyers (I politely refused).

      But there is perhaps an even greater, and more regrettable reason for the curious non-appearance of the working world in art, namely the belief that work simply isn't an interesting subject. The workplace is thought to be merely a place for degrading and banal labor out of which no one could spin anything of value other than (at best) a satirical or nihilistic commentary. This is connected to the fact that much modern work has become white-collar work, almost totally without obvious heroism or romanticism. Farming, fighting, building - these are rich in anecdotes and color, they are the stuff of children's tales. Less so website optimization and telephone customer management. It is hard to turn the latter into stories. We cannot easily "see" the interest. But that is not to say it doesn't exist - no less than that it was hard for readers to see the interest of an ordinary afternoon in London until Virginia Woolf pointed it out for them, or to note the manifold richness of the act of going to sleep until Proust started to write.

      If much of life's value rests in work, and if novelists are concerned with forging a literature of meaning rather than romance or aesthetic gestures, then they should turn their eyes to material quite unlike what we imagine stories could be weaved from. It would be literature alive to new varieties of sensory deprivation, melancholy, boredom, passion, eroticism, vindictiveness, charity, triviality, and seriousness. It would be a literature, in other words, that properly wrestled with our modern condition, helping us to understand and properly inhabit it.

      This new genre would not only invigorate literature, it would more broadly enrich our lives, for the result of the literary silence has been a form of alienation from the working process - and in turn from the whole material realm. We may know the sliver of the working world that we ourselves occupy, but the wider picture grows obscure. Two centuries ago, our forebears would have known the precise history and source of almost every one of the limited number of things they ate and owned. They would have been familiar with the pig, the carpenter, the weaver, the loom, and the dairy maid.

      The range of items available for purchase may have grown exponentially since then, but our understanding of their genesis has grown ever more unclear. We are now as imaginatively disconnected from the production and distribution of our goods as we are practically in reach of them, a process of alienation that has stripped us of opportunities for wonder, gratitude, and guilt. There is a whole manmade landscape that has a richness we simply miss. Behind a modern bag of frozen corn is a wealth of human stories every bit as rich and surprising as the more easily graspable labor behind an ear of corn.

      In an essay entitled "The Poet," published in 1844, Ralph Waldo Emerson lamented the narrow definition of interest subscribed to by his peers, who tended to reserve the term poetry exclusively for the bucolic landscapes and unspoilt pastoral scenes celebrated in the works of well-known, usually European, artists and poets of the past. Emerson, however, saw himself as a citizen of a new commercial nation, observing with interest the proliferation of railways, warehouses, canals, and factories, and wished to make room for the possibility of alternative artistic subjects. He contrasted the nostalgic devotees of old-fashioned poetry with those whom he judged to be true contemporary poetic spirits. The former camp, he averred, "see the factory-village and the railway, and fancy that the beauty of the landscape is broken up by these, for they are not yet consecrated in their reading. But the true poet sees them fall within the great order of nature not less than the beehive or the spider's geometrical web. Nature adopts them very fast into her vital circles, and the gliding train of cars she loves like her own."

      In certain arts, Emerson's point has been thoroughly explored: think of the stunning photographs of water towers by the Bechers, or the factories of Andreas Gursky. But the literary world is still waiting for its equivalents.

      Readers who look for their curiosity to be sated aren't offered the same kind of engagement. Hence how ignorant most of us are, surrounded by machines and processes of which we have only the loosest grasp; we who know nothing about gantry cranes and iron-ore bulk carriers and amortization, who register the economy only as a set of numbers, who think - even now - that it is only about money.

      Naturally, non-work themes are eternal and essential. Shakespeare wrote mainly about relationships and murders. Jane Austen cleaved closely to the domestic. Yet at a time when recession is reminding us how badly we rely on work, it should be artists who teach us to discern its pleasures and sorrows. We need an art that could function for our times a little like those 18th-century cityscapes that show us people at work from the quayside to the temple, the parliament to the counting house, panoramas like those of Canaletto in which, within a single giant frame, one can witness dockworkers unloading crates, merchants bargaining in the main square, bakers before their ovens, women sewing at their windows, and councils of ministers assembled in a palace - inclusive scenes that serve to remind us of the place that work accords each of us within the human hive.

      We need an art that can proclaim the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty, and horror of the workplace and, not least, its extraordinary claim to be able to provide us, alongside love, with the principal source of life's meaning.

      Alain de Botton's new book is "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work," published by Pantheon Books. He is giving a lecture at the Institute of Contemporary Art on Sunday, June 7, at 2:30 p.m. (www.icaboston.org).  

      Source: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/05/31/its_time_for_an_ambitious_new_literature_of_the_workplace/

    • Mark Hubey
      ... How could this work? The ones who read literature are superior beings to everyone! Their self-image was formed when almost nobody could read and they were
      Message 2 of 2 , Jun 2, 2009
        > Portrait of the Artist as a Young Data-Entry Supervisor
        > It's time for an ambitious new literature of the office

        How could this work? The ones who read literature are superior beings to
        everyone! Their self-image
        was formed when almost nobody could read and they were working on the
        meaning of life.

        They are still working on the meaning of life. They even look down upon
        people who watch
        movies of novels.

        The writer of this article pretty much says so.


        H.M. Hubey
      Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.