This morning I stumbled upon an interesting essay that functions as a kind of history of the “office novel”—starting with Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener and then moving forward to contemporary books by Joshua Ferris, Ed Parks and even Ben Lerner. It’s a solid essay that raises several questions about some of the typical elements of the form, as well as how these novels have evolved over time in line with changes in the American and international corporate landscape. You can read the essay here.
Something occurred to me as I was reading, however, and this was that all the books mentioned and discussed (save one, I think) are by men. I’m not going to pick on the author (Nikil Saval) about this, at least not at first, only because I am having trouble thinking of any by women. And so I can’t help but wonder if there is a body of “office lit” by women or maybe with more of a focus on women. Does this even exist? I assume that it does, and that I just don’t know about it.
I can think of a review we ran at Necessary Fiction for Radio Iris, by Anne-Marie Kinney, and this book would fit that category. (In his review of that title, Steve Himmer mentions two others: Lydie Salvayre’s Everyday Life and Stacey Levine’s Dra—). But what about historically? Was there a female equivalent to Melville’s Bartleby? And I don’t want to make things so simple – I know that the world of the office was almost exclusively male territory for a very long time, but it isn’t anymore, so I’d love to see that evolution as well, and how women writers have dealt with it. Especially when we so often talk about the “meaninglessness” of corporate work, and yet for many women, being able to be educated and work outside the home is a source of incredible meaning.
Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn (1977) would definitely fit into this genre in some way. So would Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps (1942). Delphine di Vegan’s novel, Les Heures Souterraines (2009) as well. Perhaps Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai (2000) might be considered a very odd take on “office lit”—that is maybe debatable, but I’ll let it stand for now. Anyway, I’ve gone through my reading lists, and I’d love to see if there are more. Is there an author who takes this subject on again and again? I’ve just read Muriel Spark for the first time (her A Far Cry from Kensington, 1988) and she strikes me as someone who could have done this, but I don’t know if her books ever take this on directly.
(Quick update – Anthony of Time’s Flow Stemmed, whose taste in books I trust without question, has just written some thoughts on Alice Furse’s novel Everybody Knows this is NOWHERE. Adding this to the list!)