The Literature of Business

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It’s hard to say which of the professions is the most entrepreneurial, but literature would have to be one of the top contenders. Authorrs may have day jobs or grants, but writing is still a piecework profession; writers produce handcrafted, labor-intensive products in a trade in which they compete against other rugged individualists. Authors may be semi-organized in trade associations or the National Writers Union, but they’ve never amalgamated into corporations as have other professions. (They haven’t even formed multi-member partnerships as do lawyers and doctors.)

Given the individualistic nature of the professional author, you’d think that most novelists would admire their fellow entrepreneurs. But pick up a typical novel, and you’ll find that whenever a business executive is mentioned, it’s usually in a bad light. From the international super-villain of the trashy thriller to the mean-minded small-town doctor or lawyer in the naturalistic novels of Sinclair Lewis and his successors, most fictional characters who run businesses spend their days lying, cheating, stealing, crushing rivals, revelling in greed and wealth, or engaging in international super-villainy.

How did novelists learn to hate business? In The Representation of Business in English Literature, six British scholars provide different answers to this question. With the exception of an episodic and inconclusive essay about modern fiction by BruneI University’s John Morris, the scholars commissioned by the Institute of Economic

Affairs do a fine job in showing how British authors learned to hate capitalism.

It should be noted that, with one exception, when the authors of these essays talk about “English literature,” they mean literature written in Great Britain. You won’t find very much here about important American novelists.

But because the contributors are experts in British fiction, they come up with interesting bits of trivia. You’ll learn, for example, that among Adam Smith’s lesser-known achievements was helping· to end the slave trade. I also was surprised to find out that Alex Comfort, before he abandoned fiction to write The Joy of Sex, was the author of The Power House (1944), a lengthy novel about a failing French textile factory.

And if you read this book and are at a party where someone asks, “I say, who could this fellow John Galt possibly be?” you can answer, “Well, as everybody knows, he was the early 19th- century Scottish novelist who wrote Annals of the Parish in 1821.” (Don’t blame me if you get pummeled.)

The arguments of the six authors of these essays run as follows: Until World War I, most British novelists who wrote about business tended to be cultural conservatives who critiqued capitalism from the right. Early 19th- century novelists were most likely to admire the aristocratic ideal of the leisurely life, and tended to think that labor was something that grubby city- dwellers did.

The great Victorian novelists Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope were successful entrepreneurs who knew the value of the intellectual property they created. But as Salford University English Professor. Angus Easson shows, they tended to avoid discussing what their characters actually did when they were working. They used these characters as tools to cause fantastically complex plots to move, but ignored most of the details about what makes capitalism work. For example, Trollope’s characters often scheme to acquire railway shares, but his readers learn little about the stock market.

The acid poured by World War I and the Great Depression corroded culture and, according to John Morris, tended to polarize both left- and right-wing British novelists against business. The conservatives, such as T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and Wyndham Lewis, thought that business was bad because as society became “more the creature of applied science, industry, and technology they felt standards were being debased.” The leftists thought that corporations were evil because they accumulated capital. No one had anything good to say about enterprising Britons. (Morris’ essay, which is good in describing British novelists before 1945, turns episodic and uninteresting in talking about the post-1945 period.)

Is there anything that we can do to cause authors to treat business more favorably? In a preface, Institute of

Pick up a typical novel, and you’ll find that whenever a business executive is mentioned, it’s usually in a bad light.


Economic Affairs President John Blundell offers these suggestions to business leaders.

• Invite young novelists to spend a day at your plant to see what factory life is really like.

• Endow a prize for the best novel which paints a realistic portrait of business.

• Don’t endow chairs at universities. Creating an “Oxbridge Chair in Literary Capitalism is not only fruitless but self-defeating, as such resources will be immediately captured by the anti-capitalists. ”

Blundell doesn’t offer any suggestions for readers, but I have one: If you’re reading a good novel with an objectionable capitalist character in it, why not write or email the author and complain? Writers don’t hear enough from readers, and if you’re calm and reasonable, you might help persuade your favorite novelist that doing business is not inherently evil.

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