By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

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Labor Days: An Anthology of Fiction About Work (synopsis/excerpt), is an exception to a trend in the arts and literature: the disappearance of the workplace. David Gates, editor of the volume, writes in the introduction that contemporary writers "prefer not to look at the significant portion of their imaginary people's lives that must … be spent at work.'' Which is too bad, he says, since portraying the workplace ''opens possibilities, introduces complications, gets characters into revelatory conflict, expands the canvas, colors up the palette, cuts down the chances of boring the reader. (Maybe).'' Even though Americans are spending more and more time at the workplace, work is all but absent from contemporary literature—and, if it's not happening in a hospital or courtroom, work is mostly absent from television and movies as well. "Presumably, most novelists would rather be writing and believe that their readers also find work a tiresome and fruitless distraction from what really matters in life," Laura Miller wrote* last month in the New York Times Book Review, even though, she added, "the office (or factory or restaurant) is where people find adventure, camaraderie, meaning and even intimacy," making it good material for fiction.

But if the workplace is a good setting for stories, the act of work itself may have lost its literary power, writes* Chicago Tribune cultural critic Julia Keller. She suggests the marginalization of work in the arts owes to the changing nature of work in the last century, from muscle to mind, from sweating and "sod-busting" to sitting in cubicles, as the manufacturing economy gave way to a service and information economy and much of America went from hard work to soft work. As a result, work has lost its visceral immediacy in literature—as it had in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath—and thus its ability to illustrate literary character. As Keller writes, "The opportunities for sweeping physical drama in a beige cubicle are somewhat limited." She quotes author Russell Muirhead, who says, "Maybe it's hard to depict work in a post-industrial economy because so much of it is done at computer screens." Plus, Keller observes, the role of using work to illumine the struggles of the poor has been assumed by non-fiction writers, such as David K. Shipler in The Working Poor: Invisible in America and Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

If so, fiction is missing out on an opportunity—on its duty—to help us understand two new realities of our working lives. First, as cell phones, laptops, and teleconferencing transform our understanding of "the workplace," and make it harder to leave our work behind in our home, church, and civic lives, they tend to reduce our presence in and commitment to these other areas of life. Second, in a "post-industrial economy," work may be even more integrated to our conceptions of personal identity than ever before. The reflexive question to a person we meet, "What do you do?" is an immediate demand for a clue to the question, "Who are you?" Christians should be especially able to discuss these questions, and to address what Muirhead tells Keller: "We want a calling—something that we can feel devoted to." At, editor Dick Doster, wonders whether Christians are prepared. "We need to become reacquainted with the notion that God uses our work to meet the needs of his people. Our work isn't supposed to be primarily about the money. It is, above all, about loving our neighbor."

Keller's sidebar* on memorable portrayals of work in the arts
Work, meaning and choice, and Calvin Seerveld on Jubilee on the Job, from Comment
My entry on the Union Stockyards and The Jungle in my Chicago album


From the New York Times :

COPENHAGEN*—According to Sweden, [Danish immigration] laws have led about 1,000 mixed Danish-foreign couples, barred from setting up households in Denmark, to live across the strait between Copenhagen and Sweden. In many cases, the Danish partner crosses the long causeway bridge from Malmo to Copenhagen every day, or takes the ferry … to work or study. The bridge was called the Love Bridge by The Economist, which carried an account of the situation a couple of months ago, though the term does not seem to have caught on among the couples actually living lives divided between two countries … Throwing out Danes was not the intention of the new law, some of the legislation's sponsors say, but an unavoidable result of the effort to reduce the influx of foreigners, often from non-European countries, who, they argue, burden the social welfare system, commit more than their share of the crime and tend to form enclaves within Denmark, defying efforts to integrate them.

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