March 7, 2012

Why don’t serious novelists write about finance?


Writing in the Financial Times, John Lanchester—the author of the novel Capital—asks why it is that so few novelists and poets tackle banking and finance:

You can assemble an entire canon of the greatest English language poets from men who had lengthy professional careers in the world of money and administration, from Geoffrey Chaucer (customs) to Edmund Spenser (government and administration) to John Milton (ditto) all the way through to TS Eliot (banking and publishing) and Wallace Stevens – and this entire pantheon barely touches on the world of work and money. If it seems unreasonable to expect poets to write about practical matters, well, it can be done: bear in mind that Virgil’s Georgics had the explicit ambition of being a guide to farming, as well as an account of the pastoral year [….]

It’s especially apparent in literary fiction, which often seems to have a positive aversion to the depiction of work in general, and financial work in particular. This isn’t true of genre fiction, where there have been a series of bold attempts at dramatising the world of money, from Arthur Hailey’s 1975 novel “The Moneychangers” through the thrillers of Paul Erdman to Robert Harris’s recent “The Fear Index.”

Lanchester’s thoughts are worth reading in full. He blames Henry James (for having “a sense of what was and was not appropriate as the domain of Art”), the quick evolution of financial markets (“a novel about this year’s trends in finance, by the time it comes out in two years, would risk being irretrievably outdated”), and the staggering complexity of financial instruments (“everything has to be simplified to the point of caricature”).


Kelly Burdick is the executive editor of Melville House.