Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Whence the Literary Bankers?

Last week my friend Robert sent me the following email:

The nineteenth century novel is the closest thing we have to a literature of capitalism. One of the stock characters was the businessman or his son who due to the vicissitudes of life, a run of bad luck, or weak character turns to gambling, becomes addicted and ultimately looses everything. In some novels a rich relative might bail them out, or wife and family might bring them to reason, while others ended in tragic ruin. The melodramatic and Weberian moral was obvious. Today we have a post-capitalist literature, which rarely deals with the virtues and vices of the business world. And yet here before us are all these bankers, addicted to gambling, relying on government to bail them out, with their decaying character laid bare before the public. Where are our Dickens, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Trollop?

I replied:

What is our closest analogue—something like American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis? That book belongs to a more confident (pre-lapsarian?) era in American finance. But then the scary thought is that perhaps, despite the crisis, nothing has really changed and the world of American Psycho still exists.
More recently John Lanchester wrote a book called Capital which takes the banking crisis as its plot fulcrum and which I have heard good things about but have not read. Also: Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford, whose subject is not banking at all but the promise and failure of the Kruschev era soviet system; but here the financial crisis is the obvious, if unmentioned, prime mover. It's curious: the book which says maybe the most interesting things about the financial crisis happens to be a book about communism.
Perhaps the failure of finance is too obvious and banal to make compelling fiction—like a mystery novel, if the identity of the killer is already clear after the first chapter.
I've heard people say that nowadays, the production of English language fiction is split between New York and London on the one hand, and Iowa (the most famous MFA program) on the other. If that is true, then the literary problem can be reduced to one of geography: half of our writers are too close to finance to write about it, while the other half are too far away.

Robert sent back:

The thing about capitalism in nineteenth century novels is that it was very much the environment in which the character existed. Nicholas Nickleby has characters that are involved in making loans to businesses, there is a great deal of information about what they are doing as it is part of the plot, Also Dickens did have strong opinions about people who lived only to make money but functioning in the business world was a part of the story. The French are thick with business Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert all have capitalist characters central to their stories.
In the 20th century John O’Hara often wrote with a strong capitalist business background as of course did Sinclair Lewis but not Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck (East of Eden???), Faulkner, Nabokov, Proust, Forester, …

What do you think?

Posted by Jarad

1 comment:

  1. This is to the point:

    “The journalism world, a collection pool for the few Harvard College graduates who rebelliously reject law or consulting careers but hardly have to make it the hard way (the New York Times, notably, reserves a junior reporter job or two each year for graduating staffers of the Harvard Crimson), has been thorough in its anti-journalistic investigations of the perps behind the ’08 crash—low-income mortgage holders, minorities, recipients of unemployment benefits, Congressman Barney Frank, and unionized public school teachers, to name only a few major players in this shadowy network—while the ever upward-falling meritocracy of high finance has been deemed too petulant to fail.”
    - Jim Newell in The Baffler


    If this is right, then the diagnosis extends to the world of the novel; there is no reason the subtle force of meritocratic solidarity should corrupt members of the literary establishment (star authors, publishers, agents) less readily than it seduces journalists.

    I happen to think it is wrong. Bourdieu says there is a basic antagonism between cultural and financial elites. The cultural elite are “the oppressed portion of the dominant class.” Writers, artists, and academics sit on the steps (or perhaps, across the street) of the halls of institutional power, while inside the investment bankers grease the palms of the politicians. The outsiders seek a sort of revenge by accumulating the currency of useless but prestigious knowledge. The insiders glance outside once in a while to see the spectacle, and otherwise leave the outsiders alone to play in their sandboxes.

    But my faith in this binary categorization is weakening. Certainly, when I was in school, it seemed correct. The creative types despised the finance-bound; the finance people mostly ignored us. But in my work experience I’ve seen much less passionate hatred towards the business-minded from my colleagues, and much more disdainful distance. For instance, at the New Republic the writers and editors disliked finance in the abstract. But there was no real cultural animosity towards the wealthy. And it was not just that many staff writers were sons and daughters of the wealthy themselves. I think the magazine’s culture of professional gentility was not really compatible with out and out resentment towards money. But why?