I consider myself a cubicle author because work plays a role in every novel I’ve written. The same is true for Snow in Los Angeles, although it takes place in a bakery instead of an office. There is a genre for such writing, occupational fiction. However, most publishers and agents don’t look for it, submission websites don’t have an option for it, bookstores don’t have a shelf dedicated to it, and readers don’t know it exists.
I’d like to make a case for occupational fiction. Our readers want to be told they have value. They don’t have to look for it by escaping to some magical land or through superheroes with unlimited powers. They can find it in the world we live in and in the things we do daily. Here’s how we can do it through occupational fiction.
People do like stories about work
Work is a relatable subject. We all do it in some way. Much of it may be mundane, but it poses challenges, personal conflicts, stress, and the occasional heart-pounding risk. And all forms of work offer us a sense of satisfaction when the job is done.
Two movies show the potential of dramatizing work. The first is the 1988 movie Working Girl with Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, and a kickass song by Carly Simon. It’s about a young woman with talent and education, but not much opportunity. When she gets it, we see how she can use her skill, risk-taking, and determination to close the deal and get the guy. (OK, parts of the movie didn’t age well.)
The other is one I recently watched, the 2015 Creed with Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan. When you think about it, the movie is one long training montage as Adonis develops the skill and determination to become a world-class boxer. We see him put in the work, build a team (including trainer Rocky Balboa and Adonis’s new love Bianca), and prove himself worthy to get in the ring with a world champion.
Whether it’s fighting to close a merger or win a boxing title, we enjoy seeing the work that goes into achieving the goal, the challenges people must overcome to get it, and the growth that comes from the effort. Work can be exciting and inspiring to watch.
We need to see the value of work
We recently completed the longest Federal government shutdown in US history (with another one looming in the middle of February). During this shutdown, 800,000 employees were furloughed or forced to work without pay. The reaction of certain government officials to these employees’ plights was callous, to say the least. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said he didn’t understand why employees had to get help from food banks and suggested that they take out low-interest loans until they got paid. President Trump himself said that grocery stores and other local businesses would be willing to “work along” with unpaid federal employees (forgetting that those businesses also need to cover expenses and pay their own employees).
If we live in a society that values work and shows this value by paying employees fairly, such callousness towards working people wouldn’t exist.
In The Three Stooges shorts during the Great Depression, we see Moe, Larry, and Curly go out for any job they could find. Mayhem and hilarity ensued, but they appreciated their jobs and struggled to keep them even after someone got hit in the face with a pie. You can hear Moe say, “Get back to work,” even if they didn’t know what they were doing.
We shouldn’t wait until jobs are scarce to see the value of work. We should appreciate it now. Occupational fiction can help us do this.
We can show how people learn and grow through their employment, face challenges and overcome them, solve daunting problems, and find courage and self-worth. We can depict healthy balances of work and family life, and show how a diverse workforce can share their experiences to achieve great things. Our heroes can be those who stand on principle, who “do the right thing and do things right,” and achieve through hard work and honesty. Our villains can be those who try to get ahead through cheating and subterfuge, and get the comeuppance they deserve in the end.
The time for occupational fiction is now
As automation threatens to eliminate entire occupations, stable jobs are replaced by the “gig economy,” and the middle class is being crushed by growing income inequality and increasing education and medical costs, we need to defend the value of employment. We need to show the creative potential of work, the value of a professional community, and the triumphs we can experience by solving problems.
So, give occupational fiction a try. By telling stories about work, we can build the value of work in our society.
If you’d like to read an example, check out my upcoming novel Amiga. Thank you for your help.