From daydreaming about sex to the politics of tea-making, Melville’s reluctant scrivener to Sylvia Plath’s New York internship, here are some of the best books about the nine-to-five
It makes sense to me that one of the bestselling genres in China is the workplace novel. The most popular has sold 5m copies and is called Du Lala’s Promotion Diary: it combines soap-opera twists with career advice of the machiavellian kind (“If your boss makes a pass at you, smile and flirt back”) to tell the story of a secretary rising to the position of HR manager. But this is a genre you don’t find in Britain. It didn’t bother me that the books I read rarely dealt with work until I moved to London to find a job: the novels I knew spoke to me of love and betrayal and the particular colour of a Cornish sky, but rarely of the politics of tea-making, everyday ambition or the entwined pleasures and duties of work. Here are some books that do.
1. Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do by Studs Terkel
Terkel starts his huge oral history of work in 1970s America with four epigraphs. My favourite is from Faulkner: “You can’t eat for eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours a day – all you can do for eight hours a day is work. Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy.” I particularly love the interviews with the paperboys, the ad executives, the Lordstown welders and the lettuce pickers, but the book is inexhaustible.
Garson hung around outside factory gates across the US in the 1970s to talk to the workers who stacked ping pong paddles, canned tuna and bottled lipgloss. Garson asks one tuna-fish canner if she talks to the other women around her all day.
“Not really,” she answers.
“What do you do all day?”
“What do you daydream about?”
“I guess that’s my fault,” her boyfriend apologised proudly.
“No, it’s not you,” she said. “It’s the tuna fish.”
Saval, by day an editor for n+1 magazine, wrote a fascinating history of the office in reality and in our imagination last year. Starting with the polite refusal of the clerk in Melville’s 1853 short story Bartleby, the Scrivener – “I would prefer not to,” Bartleby says one day when asked to proofread a document, and then keeps on saying it – Saval goes on to track the rise of the female typist and the ways the skyscraper changed what an office could and should be, all the way to the partitioned cubicle and the hot desks of today.
Virginia and Leonard Woolf first published these accounts of working women’s lives – a felt-hat worker, a plate-layer’s wife, a guild office clerk, among others – at their Hogarth Press in 1931 in association with the Women’s Co-operative Guild. In the preface, Virginia remembers her attendance at a congress of working women, where she sits uneasily, feeling like a middle-class visitor capable of fictitious sympathy rather than the real sort. She finds the accounts remind her of “those obscure writers before the birth of Shakespeare who never travelled beyond the borders of their own parishes” and contain “some qualities even as literature that the literate and instructed might envy”.
The three sisters left unprotected by the death of their father long for Moscow, yes, but they are always talking about work. In last year’s version by Anya Reiss at the Southwark Playhouse, the play opened with Olga marking exercise books and Irina wishing for “sweat work, real work”. By the last act, worn out, Irina is resigned: “One day it will all make sense, won’t it? All this, every bit of suffering that’s ever happened, will make sense. And there’ll be no secrets, no mystery to it because we’ll all know why. Even if now we just have to work and live.”
Hardy pays attention to the details of agricultural work as we follow Tess from Alec D’Urberville’s estate to the dairy farm where she falls in love with Angel Clare, the parson’s son, and the frozen fields she ends up working in when her past is revealed. Here’s Tess at work in the milking parlour: “There was for a time no talk in the barton, and not a sound interfered with the purr of the milk-jets into the numerous pails, except a momentary exclamation to one of the beasts requesting her to turn around or stand still.”
Nancy Hawkins is the editor-in-chief at Ullswater Press in 1954. The office clock is “unreliable”, the authors ring to complain about not being paid, sandwiches are sent out for and eaten with office-made coffee when it rains, Ivy the typist never lets up, a raincoated man from the (unpaid) printer stares up from the street all week, manuscripts pile up on Mrs Hawkins’s desk and sherry is poured out at 5.30pm. I, needless to say, long to walk into the office of Ullswater Press.
In the late 1960s, McPhee, a reporter for the New Yorker, went to live “for a while” with his wife and four young daughters on Colonsay in the Outer Hebrides, from where his great-grandfather had fled after the Highland clearances. He goes lobster-fishing, fence-mending, gull-killing, documenting the lives – working and otherwise – of the people on the island. He accompanies the crofters to hand over the year’s rent. The laird sits in the inn, pressing the tenants to accept a dram of either whisky or sherry. “You took your glass and you rose and said, ‘My respects, Milord,’” one tenant said, “and you drank your whisky – ‘a drop of himself’, as Skye men say.”
In the early 1900s, Bell and her stepdaughter (who would become the explorer Gertrude Bell) began paying visits to the steelworkers’ terraces of Middlesbrough. The result is this book, a portrait of working life post-Industrial Revolution. The coke ovens have to be kept going 365 days a year, a flannel shirt disintegrates after three days’ wear, men fall into the furnace and work stops for the body parts to be fished out, lunch is brought in a bucket and left on the cooling pig iron to keep warm.
The second half of the book is set in Doctor Gordon’s private hospital, but the first is set in a magazine intern’s New York. “I was supposed to be having the time of my life,” Esther Greenwood says. Errands are run, assignments are written, plain vodka is drunk, long hot baths are wallowed in, lunches with famous poets who eat with their fingers are had. It speaks to the first alien, alluring and bruising encounter with the working world.
- Joanna Biggs’s All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work is published by Serpent’s Tail. Buy it at the Guardian Bookshop
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