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?
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