Show me the 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”.

I’ve quoted that line a number of times to people who work with money, and they always seem to know what Stevens meant – even though 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 that is there purely for its own sake.

Note that Stevens never wrote a line of poetry that ever touched on the world of money. He isn’t alone in that. 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 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 – an ambition picked up by Ted Hughes in Moortown Diary poems.

The gap in the canon of fiction is even more conspicuous. 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 novel about the world of money. Take Jane Austen. Her work is astonishingly fresh in almost every respect, and its psychological insights are as applicable to the early 21st century as they were to the early 19th. Part of what is so bracingly contemporary about her is her complete lack of self-deception about the importance of money to her characters’ lives, especially their love lives. But there’s nothing about money in and of itself; nothing about how this central aspect of the world actually works.

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 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. Hailey could hardly be less in fashion today but his novels, which study one milieu at a time – aircraft, hotels, hospitals – were once sure-fire bestsellers, largely because they brought the reader the pleasures of wish-fulfilling plots combined with masses of information. The Moneychangers had a particularly vivid scene featuring a bank run, 32 years before we all saw one in action at Northern Rock. But this kind of hands-on, practical engagement with the world of finance is absent from non-genre fiction, and has been since the 19th century, when writers such as Balzac, Dickens and Trollope were just as interested in the world of money as they were in everything else.

Why? It’s partly a fault in the definition of the literary. A French literary critic once told me: “Part of the reason the French like writers like Nick Hornby or Jonathan Coe is because they write about things that people do and are interested in in normal life, like clothes and music and going to the supermarket. Here in France, the novel doesn’t do that. It thinks of itself in capital letters, you know, The Novel. The serious novel here is mainly about the characters’ inner life, and writers don’t want to put ordinary life in it because it will make it less literary.”

That attitude is easy to diagnose at the distance of Paris but it has some bearing in English as well. I blame Henry James. He was the first great writer in English to make the novel self-consciously a work of Art, preoccupied with its own formal procedures and dominated by rules about the narrator’s perspective. TS Eliot described this attitude in giving James what was supposed to be a compliment: he said James “had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it”. This is not to say that there are not many great artists in the tradition before him. James, however, had a sense of what was and was not appropriate as the domain of Art; a sense that Defoe, or Dickens, or Thackeray, or Trollope, or George Eliot, would have rejected. He implicitly believed that certain subjects were not, could not be, Art. That is a mistaken belief, and it is 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 (1903). 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 smart money thinks it was something to do with toilets.) The writers who emerge from James’s shadow, however, are always at risk of leaving out bits of worldliness that they should put in.

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, would risk being irretrievably outdated. The risk is shown by a book I love, one of my favourite contemporary novels, Jay McInerney’s Brightness Falls (1993). The novel is set in the New York publishing world of the late 1980s: Russell Calloway, a book editor whose career has stalled, latches on to the takeover craze in finance and sets out to buy the distinguished old literary firm for which he works. The tone is beautifully balanced between light and dark, until the crash of October 1987 comes, the takeover bid goes wrong, and Russell loses his job, and, perhaps, his marriage. The novel ends with sad, downbeat cadences that echo its lovely title and give a general sense of decline and melancholy and of the party being over. And that, as it turns out, was wrong: the 1987 crash was merely a speed bump, and the whole financial rave kicked off again louder and longer than ever before. This means that Brightness Falls is a perfect summary of what turned out to be a brief mood and moment: its larger tone and perspective were in an important sense invalidated by what happened next. By trying to sum up a moment in the world of money, the novel got it wrong – and that’s always a risk. Imagine writing a novel about how cool bankers could be, and modelling it on Fred Goodwin in 2005.

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 television, indeed they’re staples of the medium, but I’ve yet to meet a professional in either discipline who’s been satisfied with a TV 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”. A character will utter those words as the cue for the long explanation of exactly why the hyperdrive warp won’t allow the hero to travel through the flux continuum vortex, or whatever it is the plot demands he do. But explanations break fiction. 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 familiar clanking noise of the milkman delivering bottles to the front door.

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, Whoops! (2010). 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 credit default swap?”

That, I think, means there are unlikely to be many novels that describe in detail the modern world of finance, just as there are unlikely to be many about the detailed specifics of any other work-world: these are now too complex and specialised. There’s something sad about that but at least it means that novelists know where they should concentrate: on the truths about people that remain true. We’re back to poetry again, and to Ezra Pound’s observation that “literature is news that stays news”.

John Lanchester is speaking on Saturday at the LSE Literary Festival in London, His latest novel is ‘Capital’ (Faber)

Howard Davies on the lack of business in modern British fiction

Anti-heroes and villains: Lucy Kellaway on bankers in books

When it comes to demonising bankers, writers got there long before the general taxpayer. It is 400 years since Shakespeare created Shylock, the money-lender who demanded a pound of Antonio’s flesh as security.

He was followed by Trollope’s Melmotte (The Way We Live Now, 1875), a vain psychopath who sees nothing amiss in defrauding his own daughter. A century later in The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), Tom Wolfe gave his unscrupulous banker, Sherman McCoy, a few additional flaws fitting to the new masters of the universe: drug-taking and sexual incontinence.

Most new novels about the financial crisis continue to take this road. In A Week In December (2009), Sebastian Faulks produces a standard-issue banking anti-hero named John Veals, dishing him up with dull lectures on financial instruments as a side-order. At least Adam Haslett, in Union Atlantic (2010), gives his banker the hinterland of a dysfunctional childhood, which possibly serves to explain his selfishness, vulgar tastes in home furnishings, and sexual exploitation of a schoolboy. Only rarely is a banker allowed even a few likeable characteristics. In Justin Cartwright’s Other People’s Money (2011), Julian Trevelyan-Tubal frets about his chauffeur’s health, even as he arranges to have the bank’s balance sheet fraudulently bolstered. The banker in Jay McInerney’s The Good Life (2006) becomes something close to a saint – but only after the Twin Towers have collapsed on him on 9/11.

A superior example is Mr Banks in Mary Poppins (pictured). He starts off as many bankers do in real life (if you ignore that he breaks into song at the drop of a bowler hat) by being exacting, uptight and a little dull. “A British bank should be run with precision/ A British home demands nothing less,” he sings, prancing round the living room.

But then there is a run on the bank, he gets fired, says “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” in his exit interview and skips off to fly a kite with his children.

Lucy Kellaway is the FT’s management columnist

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