Newspaper article International New York Times

Money, It Has Been Said, Is a Kind of Collective Fiction. How Has Fiction Treated Money in Turn?

Newspaper article International New York Times

Money, It Has Been Said, Is a Kind of Collective Fiction. How Has Fiction Treated Money in Turn?

Article excerpt

One result of the professionalization of the imaginative life is that the working classes have largely disappeared from contemporary fiction.

Pankaj Mishra

"Business is the only human solidarity," the American novelist William Dean Howells confessed in his essay "The Man of Letters as a Man of Business." "We are all bound together with that chain, whatever interests and tastes and principles separate us." Howells acknowledged what by the Gilded Age had become an unavoidable reality. Catering to a rising bourgeois class, imaginative writers had been forced to recognize money as both the root of many evils and also, in Marx's words, "the truly creative power."

Thus the modern writer was trapped in a compromising and humiliating relationship with his aggressively commercial society. A reactionary like Balzac could alchemize his hatred for the "purse- proud impertinence" of the bourgeois. Left-leaning writers like Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair depicted capitalism as a jungle. The advocates of l'art pour l'art taunted the "hypocrite lecteur." The surrealists contemptuously ignored him altogether.

But the rebellious and anarchic energies generated by the 19th- century clash of romantic and materialist worldviews have been largely defused by the cultural patronage of rich societies -- generous advances, fellowships and academic sinecures. Sheer pleasure in unacknowledged membership of the bourgeoisie -- what Roland Barthes defined as "the social class that does not want to be named" -- seems to have replaced the onerous duties of unacknowledged legislation.

One result of the steady professionalization of the imaginative life is that the working classes, let alone the poor and the destitute, have largely disappeared from contemporary fiction. The dominant tone of irony, part of a characteristically bourgeois project of self-concealment and euphemism, has merely enhanced money's amazing ability, in Saul Bellow's words, "to survive identification" as a great evil and "go on forever."

This is not to say that many works -- from John Updike's Rabbit quartet to Dave Eggers's "A Hologram for the King" -- haven't registered the main events in the recent history of money: oil shocks, the proliferation of technologies, the migration of low- wage jobs to the newly industrializing countries, shifts in consumer habits, hubristic technicism and reckless financialization. …

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