The workplace story

The nation’s business people toil away generating wealth for themselves, their families and society at large, often coping with immense pressure in the process. And how are they thanked by writers and film-makers? With contempt. From Shylock to Mr Gradgrind, from The Divine Comedy to American Psycho, business people are invariably depicted in fiction as venal, corrupt, shifty, cold, emotionally-stunted, superficial and unimaginative – destined, almost without exception, to make their workers suffer, their partners self-destruct and their children miserable. Never mind honourable self-interest, the profit-motive is usually presented as a disease of the mind, cognate with violence and despair.

Prior to 11 September, oppressive regimes and dictators had pretty well been usurped by soulless corporations and heartless suits as cinema’s chief villains (Wall Street, Erin Brokovich, Mission Impossible II). When the Washington-based Media Institute tracked the portrayal of business people in 200 episodes of 50 primetime TV programmes1, it found that more than half of all corporate leaders on television commit crimes ranging from fraud to murder, while 45 per cent of business activity on TV is portrayed as illegal.

Even Harry Potter books contain a campaign for the freedom of the elves from a thinly-veiled boss-figure. And it’s no laughing matter. This 700-year ‘duffing-up’ that writers and film-makers have delivered to business people undermines public esteem for enterprise.

That, at least, is the view of the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA)2, solemn defen-der of free market orthodoxy. John Blundell, the institute’s director general, thinks business people and employers should care deeply about this consistently negative portrayal because it fosters an intellectual climate: good, bright people may be turned off worthy careers in management on the grounds that it is unworthy.

“The idea of a new, improved, kinder, gentler capitalism is utterly alien to them [intellectuals, authors],” Blundell says. “They want to tear it down and destroy it: the novel or the ‘environment movement’ is simply a means to an end, the outright destruction of business, the total demise of capitalism.”

Should employers really take this on board? It is hard to see that this sustained assault by writers has had much impact. In any case, fiction authors tend to have limited practical experience of the business world as understood by most people and even less of the anxieties of management. It is the artist’s obligation to despise mercantile values while craving a six-figure contract. Such hypocrisies probably go some way to explaining why a great deal of fiction about the workplace is so unrealistic.

Yet it should be said that while the IEA takes an evangelical stance on the integrity of the profit-motive that no number of corporate scandals could ever sway, it is not alone in its broad argument.

David Grayson, a well-known campaigner for Business in the Community, believes the public image of those who generate wealth is important. “I don’t think the depiction is fair and I think writers are lazy about it. We still have not got a sense of the moral worth and value of enterprise.”

Moral worth? That, I think, is an ambition too far. It is hard to see that the ‘moral worth’ of business people will ever make good dramatic capital; the result would be awful. Doomed, too, are attempts by employers to influence creative representations of themselves. Endowing an Oxford chair of literary capitalism or sponsoring a Workplace-Creative Industries Liaison Unit are too open to the charge of bankrolling propaganda to be viable.

Yet the IEA, in its hopeless wish for customer-focused heroes, is perhaps too downcast. Anyone who takes an interest in the subject of work – its meaning, the many and diverse functions it has, how it is changing – cannot help being intrigued by the growth in creative accounts of working life over recent years. Some of these offer, if not comfort exactly, then at least a little variety for castigated employers.

For example, one of the results of dot-com mania was to make work as shown on films and dramas such as Start-up, Perfect World and Attachments look suddenly desirable. No longer is it a matter of petty tyranny or soul-sapping boredom, as Kafka or Larkin had it, and instead work looks more like a lifestyle accessory, a means of attaining the blissful state of perpetual busyness every go-getter aspires to.

Television hums with the message that being motivated by one’s work is cool.

In fiction, too, there seems to be renewed fascination with the complicated nature of the employment experience. Work may not have the intensity of warfare or love, but it does have the advantage of being relatively under-scrutinised.

Both Rachel Cusk (The Temporary) and Serena Mackesy (The Temp) have found material at the sharp end of the casual labour market. Meanwhile, in Matt Thorne’s novel, Eight Minutes Idle, the modern culture of blending work seamlessly into life is taken to its logical extreme when the hero decides to move into the call centre in which he works. Adam Thorpe’s collection of short stories, Shifts, deals entirely with characters ranging from binmen to sawmill managers reflecting on how they have been liberated and enslaved by their jobs.

Even the modern working environment holds a peculiar passion for some writers. Most of Michael Bracewell’s novel about office life, Present Tense, is spent decoding the office – the grey carpet tiles, filing cabinets ‘the colour of cold veal’, ‘Fat Val’, the line manager (“one of those people who lowers everyone’s spirit the moment they walk into the room”), and the art of avoiding colleagues during lunch hour. While the protagonist claims he has always felt ‘out of step’ with the workplace, he fears he cannot survive without it. “Worse than work is not working,” he sighs.

Nothing like the age of job insecurity to help a plot shift along a bit quicker – that alone should ensure new takes on the nature of work keep coming. We have the romantic novel, the campus novel, the singleton’s tale, so who knows? One day, we may even have… the management novel.


1 Crooks, Conmen and Clowns: Businessmen in TV Entertainment, The Media Institute, Washington

2 The Representation of Business in English Literature, Readings 53, Institute for Economic Affairs

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