Office novels explored the strange reality of our working lives

Stuart Miller

THE WASHINGTON POST – “I miss boring meetings,” John Kenney said. The author of two workplace novels – Truth in Advertising and Talk to Me – and Love Poems for the Office, Kenney doesn’t miss being bored. “I miss being in a room with other people.”

Zoom meetings are functional, Kenney said, but lack spontaneity and stymie meandering conversations. “What makes work interesting is the serendipitous spark that could come when you’re chatting and the other person said something and then you get an idea,” he said. “Serendipity is hard to capture on Zoom.”

Stuck at home for a year during the coronavirus pandemic, many Americans feel wistful for office life, even aspects they moaned and groaned about before the shutdowns – the parts captured in office novels, an increasingly popular genre of American fiction.

Sure, there have long been workplace books, such as Joseph Heller’s 1974 novel Something Happened. Joshua Ferris, whose 2007 novel Then We Came to the End helped usher in the current trend, cites Herman Melville’s 1853 Bartleby, the Scrivener as an influence. Mateo Askaripour (Black Buck) points to John A Williams’ 1960 book The Angry Ones. Ed Park (Personal Days) loves Nicholson Baker’s 1988 book The Mezzanine.

Yet those earlier books felt like literary outliers. Novels have often been set at work, especially in academia or police precincts.

Office novels have evolved alongside workplace culture. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

But it is only in the last 20 years that the office novel has – like work itself – commanded more of our time and attention. (This parallels the rise of TV shows such as Mad Men, Silicon Valley, Corporate and, of course, The Office.) It started with the generational growth in white-collar jobs. “The critical mass of office workers created its own universality for fiction,” Ferris said.

“What better antagonists are there than a cubicle, a stapler and a bad co-worker? They’re ready-made foes.”

The cultural norms and strange rituals of office life are also “ripe for being adapted into creative work”, according to Askaripour.

Writers are particularly inspired by the “insidious” way work now devours our identities, said Helen Phillips, author of the The Beautiful Bureaucrat. “We don’t have any balance, and technology makes work more all-consuming.”

Corporate offices can seem more impersonal than ever. In James Hynes’ Kings of Infinite Space, the protagonist can hear his colleagues’ computer keyboards, phones, printers and copiers, but, “What Paul could not see from where he stood was another single living human being.”

Not all workplace novels are alike – each unhappy workplace is unhappy in its own way, which provides plenty of fodder for writers. Ferris’ Then We Came to the End, like Park’s Personal Days, Max Barry’s Company and Dave Eggers’ The Circle, satirises work so soul-crushing it brings to mind 1984. There’s often an us-versus-them camaraderie and a dark humour reminiscent of Heller’s Catch-22: The company in Barry’s book would make Milo Minderbinder proud, with a sales staff that sells its product only to itself; a fired copywriter in Ferris’ book still shows up for a meeting because it was “in my calendar for a long time”.

Others move past absurdism into surrealism, such as Hynes’ sharp-edged poke at White men’s self-entitlement that features creatures in the walls, and Phillips’ The Beautiful Bureaucrat, an existential rumination on birth and death that is more Kafka than Heller. Most recently, a new generation of women and Black writers are exploring, with humour but also with blunt frustration and anger, the unique issues confronting them.

Camille Perri’s The Assistants uses a white-collar heist story to examine the burdens of college debt compounded by gender pay gaps and glass ceilings; Elisabeth Egan’s A Window Opens lands digs at today’s cult-like corporate culture while also emphasising the impossibility of work-life balance for mothers; and Helen Dewitt’s Lightning Rods savages the male perspective on workplace harassment. In Askaripour’s Black Buck, the protagonist faces a gauntlet of both casual and malicious racism; Zakiya Dalila Harris’s The Other Black Girl, arriving in June, is a thriller infused with social commentary about Black identity, responsibility and opportunity in the workplace.

Harris shared her protagonist’s experience of “straddling two worlds”, working in a predominantly White office in publishing where she felt, “you have to give up the thing that makes you you in terms of Blackness”.

Perri’s motivation came from seeing young women like herself who felt they were falling behind and feeling their failure was personal because “we weren’t conditioned to look at it as a systemic problem”. During the pandemic, however, office novels may evoke different feelings, despite their issues. “The office is a symbolic representation of normal civilisation,” Park said. “I think there could be a degree of nostalgia in reading these books now, just because of the human contact.”

Harris’ former publishing colleagues have been fondly reminiscing in group texts about things that once irked them. “There’s a sense of missing the regularity of work and the sense of community,” she said, adding that she also yearns for “having free snacks just show up in the kitchen”.

Park said Zoom presents issues novelists can use, such as having new colleagues you’ve never met in person. But Askaripour and Ferris believe work during the pandemic will be relegated to the background in books this era produces. “Writers will skip the Zoom work book and get back to having people fight things out in person,” Ferris said.

Some novelists hope that when (or if) things return to something resembling normal, the pandemic will inspire lasting workplace changes, which could breathe new life into the genre as well.

“We’ve learned office culture can be more flexible,” Perri said. “We must take pains to do better for women, people of colour and the disabled.”

While some remain skeptical about lasting change, Phillips argued that the rupture caused by the pandemic means there’s no going back.

“Everything in our society has been cracked open in so many different ways,” Phillips said.

“There will be an opportunity to re-build better.”

Askaripour added that, with 2020’s racial reckoning, he expects to finally see more novels dealing with systemic workplace racism. “Black people in the workplace are speaking up,” he said. “We have seen many diversity and inclusion managers hired in the past year – whether they are signs of real change or figureheads, at least we’re having these conversations.”

Either way, this new push will create tensions that makes for good material. “Any time you create a new role in the corporate structure, it is ripe for the novelist,” Park said. “Somebody will write a book about diversity and inclusion managers.”

Phillips is looking forward not only to the workplace reforms but also the books they yield. “I’m really excited and curious to read the novels that come from exploring this enormous rupture in our society,” she said. “It will be years of processing this.”