Thursday, June 11, 2009

The work in the work

The estimable Steven W. Beattie has a great post up on writing about work that's worth reading if you care about such things.

I found SWB's comments, along with those from the Alain de Botton column he was responding to, very interesting and somewhat encouraging. Because I do care about such things, which makes me write about them, and I want to do it well. It's comforting to know that others see a void in a lot of fiction where I do--the workaday world--and think it worth filling.

The flagship "office novel" in recent years, which both de Botton and Beattie reference is Joshua Ferris's *Then We Came to the End*, and for the laugh/cry/aspire to be a better writer experience that I am always hoping for when I crack a new spine, this book is pretty outstanding. It was actually one of the first reviews posted here on Rose-coloured, although I can't for the life of me find it now because I used to name posts clever things and not actually what the post is about. Anyway, I love that book, but I am sometimes I am concerned about how it is regarded, the genre-izing. Somehow "office-novel" implies the work isn't strong enough to be regarded as simply a novel.

Indeed, I loved Ferris's book because it offered that office setting that I relate to, write about, and laugh at. Ferris knew his terrain well and treated it with subtle satire and insightful criticism, and I definitely enjoyed that flare and humour. But more than a relevant setting, some good jokes and well-crafted set pieces, this "office novel" is a *good* novel. And to me, it's good for the same reason so much of my favourite fiction is: because the author has created characters that seem like real people in our world, and he shows them to such effect that we react to them and with them, recoil at their cruelties and smile at their small victories and desire them to grow beyond their failures. At least, I did.

I understood Ferris's topic not to be "office culture" or work or layoffs, much less snark and gossip and all the unattractive parts of the field. Call me crazy, but I thought he was writing about that eternal topic of literature: *how people are*. This book concentrated mainly on how they are during their working hours, but in any frame the Mona Lisa is still herself, as in any context so are we all. These characters were varying degrees of hurt and suffering, cocky and vulnerable, funny and mocked, but they were all recognizable as human human human, and they recognized their own foibles, too. They especially knew when they were making good jokes.

A lot of writing set in offices is funny, which is something that I love about it, but also something that puts those "office" books in danger as being dismissed as *merely comic* or *merely satirical*. And although I would also like to take on the difference between comedy and satire, one thing at a time: let's talk about diagetic and non-diagetic comedy first. I just googled those terms and it seems maybe I made them up. But I think they work, even if they don't technically exist.

If diagetic music in a film is music that the characters in the film can hear and that comes from some source within the scene (a radio is playing, someone sits down at the piano, etc.), and non-diagetic music is a part of the soundtrack but not the scene, so the characters don't hear it then...does it make sense to say that diagetic humour is a joke the character(s) make(s), or a situational irony that they appreciate and comment on? And non-diagetic humour is a joke *on* the characters, or at least one that they miss but the reader is supposed to get?

Still with me? Like, M*A*S*H was a revelation in diagetic humour in TV shows--Hawkeye made jokes and the other characters laughed or at least rolled their eyes knowingly; everybody was in on the jokes that the audience was laughing at, in a way that simply wasn't true on *All in the Family*--Archie Bunker had no idea he was funny.

Ok, so what's interesting to me to write about is to write about characters who get the joke, Because they're smart, and they're funny a work environment is a fertile field for such people. A high concentration of reasonably intelligent folk, stuck together in tight proximity over long periods of time, under mild duress, trying to kill the boredom, create the bonds, defend their territory in order to get through the day, and life, without losing their jobs, their dignity, or their sanity.

It's funny. Workplaces are funny places, and writing, tv shows and films about them *can* be satirical in the sense that the jokes are on the characters (who on *The Office* is laughing?) or they can simply be mimetic, showing a reasonable facsimile as life as it is lived for a lot of the gainfully employed, reasonably amusing world.

And of course "a reasonable facsimile of life as it is lived" is not the only right answer to the question, what is fiction? but it is certainly one of them. Writing about work is important because it's relevant and true, just like writing about war and babies and sex and taxes are important and relevant and true. I would hate to see that importance be diminished by gags involving photocopiers, rubber chickens and Outlook Calendar. Because those are facts of life, too.

You look so good in the shoes of a poseur


phrederique said...

Diagetic humour. This needed to be coined. A television show that I have noticed does this v. well is "How I Met Your Mother" on CBS. The characters actually laugh at the jokes their friends make. Sitcoms are soo fake looking and that one thing makes the suspension of disbelief that much easier to embrace. I also heart "And Then We Came to The End". The second person plural narrator should be annoying and yet is perfect.

ferd said...

Also your review is here