Would you believe that the way writers deal with writing about work is more often about our convenience than actual narrative realism? It’s (exaggeratedly) true! I’ve noticed—after finishing Jennifer Egan’s The Keep and beginning the new TV series The Killing--that while each is pretty excellent, it’s funny the way work is portrayed (or avoided).
It really depends on what kind of story you want to tell: is it a story about work? Well, then the characters become devoted to work and their career at the expense of their real life, which is convenient for writers because it saves the effort of figuring out what that personal life is and how to integrate it into the plot without braking the momentum that the story is gathering. Is it a story about personal life (rather than work)? Well then the easy thing is to invent b.s. jobs that allow the characters to be gentlemen and –women of leisure. One of my favorite examples of the technique is Seinfeld: Kramer doesn’t work, Elaine is theoretically in publishing but rarely works; Costanza spends most of his work-related time bumbling at work or bumbling trying to find work; Seinfeld is nominally a comedian but rarely seems to do any comedy sets, or do the preparatory work of coming up with funny things to joke about. And they all live happily in spacious New York apartments.
Seinfeld is probably at one end of (lack of) realism—it never really pretended to be about real life but about a weird, refracted version of life—and I suppose Egan’s The Keep might be at another. The Keep is one of those novels whose story can’t really be summarized simply—it’s part ghost story, part prison story, part love story, and part story about guilty—and so I’ll try to be brief: rich guy Howard has his own reasons to be doing a rich guy project and renovating an old keep and invites his cousin, Danny (who’s been estranged from his family for a while; in particular, Howard, because Danny left him stranded in a cave for three days while Howard was young) to come help him. So this is a story that’s not about work, and accordingly professions are rather vague: Howard is a financier of some sort (a bond trader, apparently, though he’s so fabulously wealthy you suspect there must be more to it than that) whereas Danny is a professional hipster. Egan’s choice of professions for her characters is nicely appropriate for the times, as there really was a time in 2006 when wealthy financiers could kind of skip off and do rich people things and hipsters could kind of drift between vague jobs. It’s perfect from the realism perspective and allows you, the writer, to make up some vague stuff that can’t be contradicted and then do whatever it is you’re really interested in—which in Egan’s case in this novel seems to be guilt.*
*A sort of skewed example of this kind of idea comes from—sigh—my own work. I once wrote what I think is a pretty good short story about a professional, fake pan handler. These people do actually exist. The point, however, is that no reader is going to gasp and say “That’s not true!” as they read the story and allow me to do other stuff I was interested in. There’s an ugly valley in the middle of “vague, b.s. jobs” that I’m talking about now and detailed, pointillist realism in the middle, and it’s most of the lawyer, doctor, and cop shows on TV where the actual professionals are eager to tell you how much life isn’t like the lawyer, doctor and cop shows. Well, it’s an ugly valley from the perspective of telling a really good story.
The other path is the “characters obsessed by work to the detriment of their personal lives.” These shows are often pretty easily summarized: Mad Men, for example, is about advertising. The Wire is about many things, but it’s primarily about cops and drug dealers. The characters are generally unhealthily consumed with their work and the ethics of living in their profession; they generally only socialize with people in their workplace; they basically have no life, and what they do have is usually intended to point out that they’re unhealthily consumed by their worklife at the expense of their home life, the jerk.
The Killing, the new AMC show whose advertisements you may have seen around the internet (with the unfortunate tagline: “Who Killed Rosie Larsen?” Unfortunate because: a) true; that’s the point of the show but b) somewhat underwhelming and doesn’t really capture what it’s all about, which is a high-resolution look at the consequences of a killing), commits a particularly egregious example of a gaffe. As the show starts, lead detective Sarah Linden is right about to retire from the Seattle police force and abscond away with her fiancé to wine country in the Bay Area and drag her unwilling son with her. But—and please don’t tell me you didn’t see this coming—the job is too interesting for her to go and she ends up sticking around and trying to solve the murder. Predictable: there’s no story otherwise, now is there? In fact, it makes you wonder why they would bother having this plot device around anyway: yeah, it raises the stakes, but it seems artificial. But the premise is one all viewers have seen before, which is that work is crazily addictive.
It fits that the show premiered on AMC, which has lately become the network serving the tastes of the coastal bobos and intelligentsia, what with this show, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. HBO, of course, is the other big player in the arena, having served up The Wire for everyone’s sentimental education. The idea is to show quality, but it’s also all in the targeting. The audience—bobos, yuppies and intelligentsia, as previously established—is an affluent one, and they generally work at interesting consuming jobs. Naturally, then, they gravitate towards shows that depict characters absorbed in conquering working challenges at a slow pace. It’s perhaps not an accident that of the shows mentioned above, the big cross-cultural buster was The Wire, which became very popular among the inner city people it depicted, who perhaps appreciated something like their lives being depicted with the same kind of attention affluent white folks got.*
*Though there’s an excellent case to be made that the focus of the show was too narrow: not too many black people who aren’t drug dealers or compromised by drugs in it. Real life inner cities—as Sudhir Venkatesh’s Off the Books shows—have an abundant diversity of activity going on.
Ultimately I do think the technique is a bit of a convenience for writers, though its effectiveness—as always—depends on the skill of the writer, who can make it more or less natural for the audience, who might respond to some of the approximations of the truth on display. For those storytellers who think epic sprawl is the only way to capture the totality of the world, it does seem a bit disappointing.