"Me, work?"  It was the mantra of Maynard G. Krebs, the 1960's television embodiment of a newly emerging subgroup—the beatniks—known for their antipathy to the work ethic.

Naturally, not everyone views work the way Maynard did.  For some, it is the most actualizing force in their lives, the centerpiece of their self-concept, the realm through which they experience purpose, and connection to a larger whole. 

 For others work is a necessary evil, the bane they long to escape.  It can be seen as that daily journey into a world defined by others, where one has little power or control.  In its darker manifestations, it can be the cauldron of hatred, injustice, insanity, conflict, boredom, humiliation, the deepest kind of desperation.

At the very least, for most of us, it is the activity which makes the greatest claim on our waking hours, the pole star of our routines, around which we pack our sandwiches, set our clocks, squeeze in everything else.

 So given its centrality and entanglement with our sense of well-being, we can expect a fair amount to be said and written about work—not just from talking heads, magazine pundits and scholars—but from those who have always had the clearest vision as to how the world affects our personal terrain—fiction writers.  Fiction, after all, has been the repository of so much insight on the forces in life that grip us: love, relationships, loathing, betrayal.  Should the workplace be any different?  No, but somehow it is. 

"While jobs and the workplace appear in fiction, they are greatly—and I do mean greatly—outnumbered by stories about families and love and relationships gone wrong,"   observes author James Reed, in his online bibliography of workplace fiction.  "Jobs might be mentioned, but only as places characters returned to or came from. Work itself was dismissed and dismissible."

There may be many reasons for this; however our purpose is not explanation, merely correction.

The stories in this collection embrace a variety of viewpoints.  Linda Boroff and Adina Sara examine the question of power.  In Sara's case, the focus is on tyrants, while Boroff inserts us into the space of a young woman desperately clinging to a perfectly awful job.  The lens gets a little surreal in "Respectful Beatings for Very Good Help," while Patricia Anne Smith takes us back to reality with her overlapping stories set in an office roiling with contemporary tensions.  In James Reed's "Customer Recognition," the protagonist is barely employed, yet work is everywhere in the air; we know the occupation of even fleeting characters, and feel the power of this over everything that unfolds.  And there is clearly something odd about the narrator of "The Macaroni Artist," whose angle of vision is unexpected and haunting.

 If I leave out specific references to other works it is not for lack of admiration.  We laid down no hard and fast rules in assembling these stories, though our call for submissions did proclaim that we were not looking for polemics.  Only one writer violated this admonition.  That would be me, in a story intended as a takeoff on Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.  The workplace reality Solzhenitsyn was examining was that of the forced labor camps of the old Soviet Union.  Is it an overreach to analogize that bitter epoch to the workaday reality of the present?  Oh, probably.  Few work at gunpoint these days—at least in the West.  But passing that low bar hardly counters the argument that there is still much about work that screams to be examined. 

The stories that follow accept that challenge.


                                                                                    Dennis Kaplan

                                                                                    Oakland, California 2008