Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

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.

Any suggestions?

(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!)

6 Responses to “Office lit…. by women?”

  1. Stefanie

    Hmm, Lispector’s Hour of the Star is about a typist but not much of the novel actually takes place in the office so I don’t know if that counts.

    • Michelle

      That’s an interesting one – I had forgotten that the story is about a typist. (And I should re-read this soon, I loved it.)

  2. Nikil Saval

    Thanks for this generous note about my piece. I don’t normally respond to reviews or posts, but because I felt a good deal of chagrin at not discussing office fiction by and about women — there is *quite* a lot, and I talk about it in my book, Cubed, from which the research for this “Dissent” piece is derived, but I had a very narrow point to make, and in attempting to make it with some economy ended up cutting the paragraphs that dealt with novels by women — I feel compelled to append a little comment.

    There are lots of ways to approach the question you’ve posed, but I’ll just do so historically. In the early 20th century in the US, there was a whole genre of “white collar girl” novels, notable ones written by women (though not all of them — the Sinclair Lewis novel I mention is one) , which catalog the major generational experience of women leaving the domestic sphere and going to work in offices. Faith Baldwin wrote a number of these, many of them bestsellers, and they describe — with awkward but hard-won honesty — the sexual politics of white collar work: usually the issue of female secretaries and their relationship to male bosses. One of her best books, Skyscraper (1931), is in some ways a post-Crash version of the story, where the love interest, a financier, is gradually revealed as a rapacious capitalist to be avoided (in the previous Baldwin books, it was seen as a potential way to cross the class divide to marry a rich boss). A more famous work, The Best of Everything, by Rona Jaffe, published in the 1950s, is a decent novel of a similar genre, maybe the culmination and exhaustion of the genre at the same time (Sex and the City was often cited as a latter-day version). But this is to say nothing, really, about the quality of these novels, and I’ll just mention Stevie Smith’s “Novel on Yellow Paper” in passing as a very good one.

    I appreciate your post on my piece, and I once again regret the major failure of its argument.

    Nikil Saval

    • Michelle

      Thank you so much for this comment, Nikil, I’m very happy you decided to leave this note. I didn’t realize the article was related to your book, but I’m very curious now to read it. And it is great getting this list of books by women and the background about the “white collar girl” novels. That transition from “using” the boss to move up socio-economically toward the dangers of capitalism (as inherent in his position of power) is a fascinating one. And I am genuinely curious whether the feminine perspective of “office lit” is as fixated on the emptiness/meaningless of corporate work – as compared to the men’s perspective. It sounds like it may not be, although I’d obviously have to read much much further into these books and the research around them.

      I thoroughly enjoyed your essay, thank you. And I really appreciate your taking the time to broaden some of it here.

  3. Smithereens

    When I read your post title, the book that came to mind was… The devil wears Prada. Yes, I know, not quite the same as Bartleby. Because chick-lit is typically designed for young women who are active professionals, workplace dynamics often takes a big place. See Bridget Jones, or How does she do it, etc.
    Also, I hurry to add, so that I reassure you that I also read middle/highbrow books, I also enjoyed very much a novel by Akiko Itoyama, Waiting in the offing.

    • Michelle

      No, I think there is really something to this. And I wonder why? Why have these been the books that take on the world of the office? That’s curious to me. I know there must be more out there on the “literary” side of things, but I suspect not nearly as many as the more commercial ones you mention. Surely someone somewhere is studying this.

      And now I’m curious about Waiting in the Offing. Will look it up!

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