Skip to main content

British author John LanchesterRandy Quan

Many writers have had day jobs in the world of money. Wallace Stevens, as well as being America's greatest 20th-century poet, was also a career professional in the insurance industry, rising to become a vice-president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. He knew a lot about the world of business, and was well qualified to make his famous observation that "Money is a kind of poetry." Most people who know about money would know what Stevens meant, but it's a hard remark to paraphrase. Money is like poetry because both involve learning to communicate in a compressed language that packs a lot of meaning and consequence into the minimum semantic space. It's also like poetry because there is a kind of beauty in the way money works, at least in the mathematical abstract: an absence of hypocrisy, or redundancy, or floweriness, or of anything which is there purely for its own sake.

Stevens never wrote a line of poetry which touched on the world of money. Nor did anyone else in the canon of major poets, and the gap in the canon of fiction is even more conspicuous. That's odd, because novels, as Iris Murdoch once observed, "are full of stuff." She meant stuff as in things, objects, places, but also in the sense of information, events, coming-and-going. The "stuff" in novels touches on every aspect of the world and people's lives. That's what makes it so remarkable just how little there is in the novelistic canon about the world of money.

Jump forward to the present day, and this absence is still there. 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 dramatizing 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. But this kind of hands-on engagement with the world of finance is absent from non-genre fiction.

Why? It's partly a fault in the definition of the literary. I blame Henry James. He was the first great writer in English to make the novel self-consciously a work of Literature. James had a sense of what was and was not appropriate as the domain of Art; a sense that Defoe, or Austen, or Dickens, or Thackeray, or Trollope, or George Eliot, would have rejected. He believed that certain subjects were not, could not be, Literature. That's wrong, it's the reason why, for all his greatness as a writer, James's influence on the English novel is an ambivalent one, summed up for me by a notorious absence in his great novel The Ambassadors. One of the characters, Chad Newsome comes from a family who are filthy rich, thanks to the manufacture of – wait for it – "a small, trivial, rather ridiculous object of the commonest domestic use."

And that's all the information we get – which is why Tolstoy, Dickens, Balzac, Stendhal, Eliot, Melville and Flaubert are in the final analysis greater writers than the programatically "artistic" James. None of them would have spared us the thrill of knowing exactly on what the Newsome family fortune was based.

The second reason for money's absence from fiction is to do with the speed of change. The novel doesn't need to be self-consciously and self-seriously Artistic in its concerns, but it does need to be human. The rhythms of human life and thought and feeling are what they are, and at a deep level, I would argue, haven't changed much. The rhythms of money are different, and the practical details of it change at extraordinary speed; so much so that a novel about this year's trends in finance, by the time it comes out in two years time, would risk being irretrievably outdated.

The third and final reason why the literary is wary of the financial concerns complexity. This isn't just to do with money, it is relevant for many other areas of modern expertise, such as law and medicine. Those two fields are often depicted on TV, indeed they're staples of the medium, but I've yet to meet a professional in either discipline who's ever been satisfied with a television portrayal of their work. To make these worlds into drama, everything has to be simplified to the point of caricature. In order to put the full complexity of these worlds into a story, you would have to explain complicated subjects, and give the explanation however much time and space it needs. But you can't explain in fiction, not like that and not at that necessary length. In science fiction, the necessary kind of filler is called "Tell me, Professor." It's fine in small doses, as a dollop of rationale before the main course of drama, but anything longer and the reader wakes hours later to the beeping of her alarm clock.

I felt this keenly myself, because I set out in late 2005 to write a novel about contemporary London, and the whole shape of the story had in it the idea of a crash to come. I knew that the book would take a few years to write, and I was sure that there would be a bust by the time I'd finished – though my assumption was that it would be a bog-standard property crash, of the type Britons my age have lived through at least once before. I was both right and wrong. When the crash did come, in real time as I was still writing my novel, it turned out to be something else; something vastly more alarming and systemic. So when I finished a draft of the book in early 2009, I put it aside for a few months to write a non-fiction account of the crash. My two main reasons for doing that were, first, because it was extraordinarily interesting, and second, because it would stop me explaining everything in my novel. I could put my research into specifics, which demand explanation, into the non-fiction, and concentrate in my novel on the human truths, which don't need explaining. Greed and fear and obliviousness are things we all understand. In fiction, I could write about them without having characters say, "Remind me, Daphne, what exactly is a synthetic CDO?"

John Lanchester is the author of The Debt to Pleasure, Capital and I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. He is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker.

Interact with The Globe