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July 3, 2008

Staff Picks: Business Novels

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 3:46 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

In his wonderful review of Personal Days in last weeeknd's New York Times Sunday Book Review (free subscription), Mark Sarvas pondered the following:
... considering the ubiquity of the work experience in American lives, and the thousands upon thousands of novels published annually, perhaps the question shouldn't be why there are two work-related novels right now but why there aren't many more.
The other "work-related novel" he is speaking of here is Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End (read Dan Pink's review of that book here, or the NYT Sunday Book Review review here). I think Sarvas poses a good question. And, though it's a far cry from a real answer, there are a few other recent and successful examples I can think of. Max Barry's Company has been well received by those who've taken notice (as were his other two books) and there are many who have. You can read the first chapter of that book here. Although it's officially a memoir, and not a novel, I really enjoyed Rock On, Dan Kennedy's February release about his time spent in the bowels of the music industry (read a review from our beloved sister company here and other reviews from the book's website here). And, finally, we have Back Bay Books' recently released Bank, David Bledin's promising debut novel about life in investment banking. For an example of his style and perspective, head on over to this rather humorous and slightly depressing Huffington Post entry. That is by no means an overwhelming number of books considering, as Sarvas said, "the thousands upon thousands of novels published annually." There is also a similarity between all of these books--they're all satires, skewering the industries they work in and write about. Kate Jennings noticeded this trend way back in 2001 in an article about business novels for strategy+business:
...as the century progressed, the fecund field of business fiction was all but abandoned by serious novelists. In fact, the problem in the last 25 years is not one of novelistic "bad press" but hardly any press at all. To be sure, there have been a number of satires, some of them brilliant, that fall under the business-novel rubric: Martin Amis's Money: A Suicide Note (1984); Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and A Man in Full (1998); David Lodge's Nice Work (1988); Bill Morris's Biography of a Buick (1992); Po Bronson's Bombardiers (1995); Douglas Coupland's Microserfs (1995); Julian Barnes's England, England (1998); and Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century (1999). Nothing wrong with satire, but when it gets too broad, too silly, played only for yuks, it loses resonance. If we set aside these works, sober fictional treatments of business, such as Philip Roth's American Pastoral (1997) and Richard Powers's Gain (1998), are scarcer than Republicans who are proregulation.
Of course, Kate Jennings is author of her own satirical take on the business world, Moral Hazard, based on her own experience as a speechwriter on Wall Street. If you're interested in more on business novels, you can find The American's pick of the top ten of all time here. I was somewhat surprised while looking around for more on this subject not to see Eliyahu M. Goldratt's The Goal mentioned in any of these conversations. That is one business novel that is most definitely not satire.

About Dylan Schleicher


Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.