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The serious business of literature

May 11, 2003|Kate Jennings | Kate Jennings is the author of the novel "Moral Hazard."

It's all just a dream, babe,

A vacuum, a scheme, babe,

That sucks you into feelin' like this.

-- Bob Dylan

The boom of the 1990s now feels exactly like Dylan's song: a dream, a vacuum and a scheme. But the hangover from those years could not be more real, giving the markets splitting headaches and fall-down dizzy spells: Witness, most recently, the $1.4-billion settlement finalized last month between investment banks and securities regulators. If financial people read more contemporary fiction that reflected their world, I've often wondered, would they be wiser about their motives and less likely to repeat their mistakes, repeat the cycle? And would we understand them better, rather than just labeling anyone in a suit as greedy?

These questions beg to be asked, but sadly there are no answers because even if we wanted to read serious, smart, current fiction, there's not much on offer. This was illustrated by a conversation a friend of mine had with an author at a dinner party. Novelists who had business themes, the author opined, were shooting themselves in the foot; they would never be taken seriously, never be literary contenders.

And she gave Louis Auchincloss as an example. Now, I would trade Louis Auchincloss' "The Embezzler," a nuanced novel about the peculiar down-the-rabbit-hole ethics and loyalties of Wall Streeters, for the rest of his oeuvre, but her point of view is a common one.

From time to time, someone grizzles about the lack of businesspeople and the workplace in fiction. As Norman Mailer recently wrote in the New Yorker: "[W]e are overfamiliar with the sensitivity of the sensitive and relatively ignorant of the cunning of the strong and the stupid. We remain one -- it may be fatal -- step removed from an intimate perception of the procedures of the corporate, financial, governmental, Mafia, and working-class establishments."

And back in 2000 in Fortune magazine, critic James Wood made similar observations, giving as reasons both the sameness and the specialization of modern-day work: "We gape at screens."

No story there, he implied. I couldn't disagree more. Before we gaped at screens, white-collar workers pushed pencils, pounded typewriters, lifted ledgers, clacked adding machines -- no different from gaping at screens; novelists write about human nature, not computers. To be sure, computers have made whole sectors of work dauntingly complex but not impossible to explain. And the seven deadly sins certainly remain the same. Stories -- important stories -- abound. Clearly, Wood has never spent time, say, on the executive floor of an investment bank. Look beyond the trappings -- the suits and paneled walls -- and you find conflict and emotion Shakespearean in its dimensions.

Both Mailer and Wood were grieving the petering out, the drying up, in our time of a marvelously varied vein of literature about business. While Theodore Dreiser, William Dean Howells, Sinclair Lewis, H.G. Wells and Emile Zola may not have been writing business novels as such, businesspeople -- their scheming, sorrowing, passions, frustrations -- figure large in their work. To have ignored them would have meant ignoring a large chunk of the world.

The real task nowadays is to find contemporary form for these writers' characters -- their moguls, entrepreneurs, bureaucrats and working stiffs -- and to portray their world for what it is: powerful, intoxicating, cascading with inventiveness and energy, yes, but also morally incomprehensible, bafflingly recondite and numbingly brutal. The absence of this honesty not only trivializes but also degrades the subject, as I discovered upon the publication of my novel, "Moral Hazard."

At first, I didn't think I was writing a business novel. In fact, it is neither fish nor fowl: The story about banking is joined with a personal story about Alzheimer's disease and euthanasia, with the hope that the two stories would illuminate each other. When my agent was selling the book, we were told by editors that the Alzheimer's part was strong but the banking part was a yawn. Who'd be interested in that?

Then Wall Street did a Humpty Dumpty, a spectacular one, balance sheets spilling open to reveal all kinds of dicky deals, and banking was suddenly front and center in people's consciousnesses. I found myself in demand on business shows for my prescience, although anyone with half a brain and one eye open who worked on Wall Street in those years could have seen what was coming. I enjoyed some of the shows, especially when the interviewer was acquainted with Anthony Trollope or Tom Wolfe. Others were plain awful. I found myself fielding questions about Martha Stewart, of whom I don't have an opinion, and about my investing habits, which are, heretically, nonexistent.

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