Business and culture

As his new novel Capital is published, John Lanchester has written a nice essay (‘Show Me The Money’) in this morning’s Financial Times about the curious lack of interest modern literature has in business – a striking contrast to many writers of the 19th century. In fact he names only one modern exception, Jay McInerney’s marvellous Brightness Falls.

There are a few others I can think of. Bonfire of the Vanities of course. David Lodge wrote a campus novel, Nice Work, that specifically addressed the chasm between the humanities and the world of business – a much greater chasm actually than between the humanities and the sciences. A while ago I wrote a post (The economist as hero) about a batch of novels about economists, notable rarities.

As Lanchester points out, genre fiction has shown more interest in the business world. He mentions Arthur Hailey, or recently Robert Harris’s terrific thriller, The Fear Index. And in a funny way, crime fiction is often quite business-focussed, albeit the illicit business of the illegal drugs trade or underworld bosses.

There’s a similar lacuna in film and TV, once you set aside criminal enterprise. Dallas had the oil business. There was The Brothers. My all-time favourite, though, was The Onedin Line, which was sharply focused on trade and commerce, and even better was set Up North. As for movies, Wall Street, of course, and its sequel. Bonfire of the Vanities, the movie. No doubt there are others, but they don’t leap to mind, which perhaps proves the point about their scarcity.

The Onedin Line

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7 thoughts on “Business and culture

  1. You’ve missed a few: “Union Atlantic” by Adam Haslett was probably the first financial crisis novel and James Clavell’s “King Rat” can be seen as a consideration of the market in a WWII PoW camp.

    But you are also right that the golden age of the ‘economic’ novel is early C20th or C19th: “Hard Times” by Dickens – of course; “The Way Live Now” by Anthony Trollope – who can forget Augustus Melmotte (and actually analogous to the growing Russian oligarchy in contepmorary London, in my opinion) ; “North and South” by Elizabeth Gaskell and the book on which David Lodge’s book draws.

    However, if you haven’t read them, the best ‘economic’ novels to my mind are “The Octopus” and “The Pit” by Frank Norris. Wonderful accounts of “The Epic of Wheat” and still pertinent today, more than 100 years after they were written.

    • Thank you very much for some books here I didn’t know about, especially Frank Norris. Among the 19th century ones, I’m also keen on Mrs Gaskell’s Mary Barton.

  2. I sometimes refer to the comedic film “Trading Places” to give people an over the top way to think about brokers, futures markets and concepts such going short and long. Unfortunately, it is quite dated (1983) and sterotypical. A more recent film example of how money, business and sport intersect may be Moneyball (although I have not seen it myself yet).

  3. You should enjoy the Norris and the Gaskell novels – Gaskell spent time as a child in Knutsford and married a Unitarian preacher from there too. She then moved to Manchester. That makes her alright by me: I’m a Maxonian! (Or from Macclesfield if you prefer – as was the former head of the IEA, John Blundell)

    • Realised I’ve also forgotten two great economics novels by a man devoted to them. Richard Powers novels “Gain”, “The Prisoner’s Dilemma”.

      How could I have forgotten? Both fantastic. And VERY economic.

      Equally, if you haven’t read B.S.Johnson’s “Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry”, then please do. It’s a rare modernist novel in English. It makes me weep with laughter. One of those rare books that takes – OK, an accounting principle – and makes it human.

  4. Pingback: It’s not a young woman’s world | The Enlightened Economist

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