"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,
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
others, where one has little power or control. In its darker
it can be the cauldron of hatred, injustice, insanity, conflict,
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
routines, around which we pack our sandwiches, set our clocks, squeeze
So given its centrality and entanglement with
our sense of well-being, we can expect a fair amount to be said and
about work—not just from talking heads, magazine pundits and
from those who have always had the clearest vision as to how the world
our personal terrain—fiction writers. Fiction, after all, has
repository of so much insight on the forces in life that grip us: love,
relationships, loathing, betrayal. Should the workplace be any
but somehow it is.
"While jobs and the workplace appear in fiction,
they are greatly—and I do mean greatly—outnumbered by stories about
and love and relationships gone wrong," observes author
James Reed, in
his online bibliography of workplace fiction. "Jobs might be
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
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
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
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
in assembling these stories, though our call for submissions did
we were not looking for polemics. Only one writer violated this
That would be me, in a story intended as a takeoff on Alexander
Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The workplace reality
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
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
about work that screams to be examined.
The stories that follow accept that challenge.
Oakland, California 2008