Why Aren’t There More Novels about Woodworkers (or about Anyone in the Trades)?

I recently got an e-mail from a reader, Chris, asking if I knew of any good fiction or even poetry about woodworkers or woodworking. I hate to admit it, but even though this blog is The Literary Workshop, I was stumped.  I can think of only one classic novel, Adam Bede by George Eliot, in which the protagonist is a woodworker.

Chris’s question got me thinking about why there aren’t more great novels about people in the trades.   It’s not that every protagonist of a novel is unemployed.  Lots of protagonists have jobs.  Off the top of my head, here are some of the professions/trades of just a few protagonists in novels I’ve enjoyed:

  • In Anthony Trollope’s Barchester series, the protagonists are clergymen.
  • In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the protagonist is a sometime student and full-time n’er-do-well.  (Ditto James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.)
  • In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the protagonist is an experimental scientist.
  • In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the initial protagonist is a lawyer.
  • In Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, the protagonist is a butler.
  • In Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the protagonist is (was) a traveling salesman.  Although we ARE told that he makes wooden picture frames with a fretsaw in his spare time–so there’s a woodworking connection for you.

There are, however, a few interesting standouts:

  • In Earnest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, the protagonist is a fisherman, and the details of his trade are intrinsic to the story.
  • In Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the protagonist takes on a number of (increasingly degrading) jobs, from working in a dairy to processing animal feed.
  • In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the protagonist sails on a whaling vessel, and the details of the trade are described in excruciating detail–but what they have to do with the story itself is a matter of some debate.

And yet, many protagonists of novels do not work at all.  They are gentry or aristocrats if they are English, or if they are American, they are independently wealthy.  Or they may be children who are not old enough to have jobs (Tom Sawyer and Harry Potter).  Or, if they do happen to have nominal jobs, they tend not to show up at work very often, and their “real” adventures occur in their off-hours.

There are popular novelists write about police officers, firefighters, nurses, and soldiers, I assume because these jobs seem intrinsically adventuresome–even dangerous–and therefore invite the novelist’s attention.  These novelists have to spend a lot of time interviewing professionals and learning about how they work, and the best of them do a passable job of depicting the nature of their protagonist’s work.  I’ve noticed, however, that even popular novelists tend not to write about, say, roofers or chairmakers with the same attention to professional practice.

Then there are novelists who happen to have professional expertise.  Anton Chekhov and Walker Percy were physicians before they started writing, and doctors show up pretty frequently in their stories.  Not a few novelists were lawyers in a previous life.  The crime novel, the courtroom novel, and the detective novel are all well-established genres.

The kinds of jobs that really attract novelists are all what I would call “investigative specialists”: the detective, the lawyer, the reporter, the doctor, and even the clergyman.  Their job is to find out what went wrong and help put it right.  Conflict, climax, and revelation can be intrinsic to their work.  But unlike the car mechanic who can solve the case of the mysterious sound under the hood, these professionals investigate specifically human behavior.  A patient walks into the exam room with mysterious symptoms.  A parishioner reveals a dark secret in the confessional.  A desperate woman implores Sherlock Holmes to investigate her sister’s mysterious death.  If you wrote a story about how a foundation repair company solved the case of the cracks in the wall, it would sound like a parody.

But surely people who work in the trades can be interesting in their own way.  Why don’t novelists write more stories about people who do skilled, manual work for a living?  Let’s set this up as a multiple-choice quiz:

A. It’s inconvenient to write about people who have regular jobs.  If you’re the protagonist in a novel, it’s implausible that you would spend all your time falling in love or solving a mystery when the foreman expects you to clock in tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. sharp.  Novels thrive on the unexpected, but people in the trades thrive on routine and predictability.  Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” cycle doesn’t work so well for people who work five days a week and only get two weeks’ vacation a year.  And then there’s the money.  Being a protagonist can get expensive.  You have to be able to buy a plane ticket to Rio or Paris at the last minute and still have money for hotels, cabs, nice dinners, and tips.  And even though electricians and auto mechanics make decent money, they’re not the sorts of people who would blow it all on the kinds of things people do in novels.  It’s so much easier to tell your story if your protagonist isn’t constantly worried about money or about making it to work on time.

B. We like to fantasize about people who aren’t like us, especially the elite.  Fiction is escapist, and middle-class readers of novels don’t want to read about people just like themselves.  Who wants to read a novel about a landscaper when you’re married to one?  The average reader wants to imagine what it’s like to be independently wealthy, to be able to sail across the ocean in pursuit of true love.  We want to read novels about people who don’t have to work, who can take up all their time entertaining us with their adventures, whether it’s Don Quixote, Elizabeth Bennett, Huck Finn, or Quentin Compson.

That’s why we also like to read about people who are lower on the social scale than ourselves.  There are squalor-fantasies as well as elite-fantasies.  The street urchins and petty criminals in Dickens entertain us just as much as the minor gentry in Austen.  Entering either world imaginatively is an escape from our own dreary, nine-to-five jobs that we would like to forget about as soon as we get into our cars and head home.

C. Novelists are ignorant of the trades because the division of labor is an inescapable feature of modern life.  Each trade has its own specialized language, as well as its trade secrets, that are not widely known outside the trade, by the novelist or by anybody else.  So even if the novelist is willing to pry into the mysteries of the trade (as Dorothy Sayers pried into the esoteric world of bell ringing for her novel The Nine Tailors), there remains the problems of (1) making the technical knowledge meaningful to general readers without boring them to death, and (2) making the technical knowledge relevant to the story they are trying to tell.  If you’re going to write a novel about auto mechanics or concrete workers, then you have to know a lot about car engines or about concrete–not just in theory but in practice.  And then you have to figure out what a radiator leak or form boards have to do with the story in the first place.  A plumber finding the source of a gas leak seems pretty uninteresting–and a novelist wouldn’t know how a plumber locates a gas leak anyway.

D. People write what they know, and a lot of novelists live in bubbles, hopelessly isolated from skilled laborers.  “Literary” novels are increasingly written either by professional novelists who do nothing but write novels or by college professors who make their actual living by teaching in creative writing programs, whose students are mostly disaffected misfits from the upscale suburbs.  Neither kind of novelist is in regular contact with real people who work in the trades.  Not many of them would know the actual dimensions of a 2X4, much less the difference between a thickness planer and a drum sander.

E. Making and repairing things is a process that proceeds according to fundamental patterns that are simply different from and incompatible with the fundamental patterns that underlie fiction.  A story about a general contractor building a house step-by-step would only be interesting to other house builders.  And even then, if the build goes according to plan, all the reader can say at the end is, “Yes, that’s how it’s supposed to go.”  A sudden complication in the story (“Oh no!  The lumberyard delivered the wrong size trusses!”) is an unwelcome annoyance, not an intriguing plot twist.

Adventure and construction are such different things that it is impossible to both tell a compelling story and give a faithful account of the process of making something.  There are magazines that print stories and magazines that print articles on how to make things, but they are necessarily two different kinds of publications.  The how-to article is for the specialist, for the professional or the dedicated amateur who will (or could) follow along and reproduce the object being made.  The how-to article might be viewed as a story, with its own beginning, middle, and end, but if the reader enjoys it as a narrative that is really beside the point.  The point is to show how something is made.  This is illustrated by one of the few attempts at a hybrid story, the anonymous 1839 book The Joiner and Cabinet Maker (reprint available from Lost Art Press) in which technical instruction is framed by the story of a young apprentice learning his trade.  But nobody who was interested only in the story would make it through the first chapter.

A real story can be enjoyed even by somebody who has no prior knowledge of the story’s topic.  The story is not telling you how to get a job done; if it’s any good, it’s being told for its own sake, because the characters and their situations are intrinsically interesting. Stories tap into the things we have in common as humans–our basic desires and fears–especially as they drive our relationships with others and with ourselves.  We read not in order to learn how to get things done, but to enjoy and (perhaps) to understand.

(Check all that apply.)

Happily, there are a few novelists who do tell compelling stories about people in the trades–sometimes even in those involving wood.  I want to highly recommend two books by the contemporary Southern novelist Tim Gautreaux, who regularly features the trades in his stories:

  • The Cleaning is a novel about two estranged brothers who together oversee operations at a rough-and-tumble sawmill operation at the turn of the century.  The characters are vivid and compelling, and the story involves quite a lot of detail about cutting, sawing, and transporting timber.  There are chilling encounters with crime bosses, moments of tender familial love, and some bizarre comic scenes that could take place only in the swamps of the Gulf Coast.
  • Signals is a collection of some of his best short stories, featuring many protagonists in the trades–a typewriter repairman, a sometime welder, a furnace repairman, an exterminator, and several more.  (Fans of Flannery O’Connor are in for a pleasant surprise in the first story, “Idols.”)  The stories are not about the trades, but in each story, the protagonist’s trade really does matter.

What about you?  Can you recommend some fiction or poetry in which woodworking (or another skilled trade) features prominently?

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20 Responses to Why Aren’t There More Novels about Woodworkers (or about Anyone in the Trades)?

  1. festus foster says:

    Calvin Cobb – Radio Woodworker

  2. Andy Firth says:

    The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell. The best writing about the working man with no gloss or happy endings.

  3. Jim Dillon says:

    Fellow English major here – – – I think your reasoning is sound. Especially the bit about the hero’s journey!
    Long ago I made a point of reading every novel published in what became the U.S. by authors from the U.S. before 1820. (Why 1820? That’s when Irving and Cooper appeared.) There were about 100 of them. Mostly anonymous, mostly pretty awful. Very few saw a second printing, let alone edition. One of them, whose title, author, date, and city of publication escape me, was a rags-to-riches story about a child with no prospects who apprentices to a sash-maker, works overtime for months to buy his own planes, becomes a successful sash-maker, then becomes what we would call a contractor, and eventually is the biggest landlord in town. The novel is basically Ben Franklin’s autobiography transposed from printing to sash-making (rags-to-riches being a contender for second fiddle to hero’s journey in the tribe of plots). Few if any details about the process of making sashes or any other woodworking. But the prose is wooden, so it’s got that going for it.

    James Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand features a first-person narrator who is a cabinetmaker reduced to working exclusively with hand tools by a general economic and civic collapse. Again, few if any details about the work process, just a bare “I spent the day making a set of doors for the neighbor, in payment for a years’ worth of pinto beans” here and there.

    The other week I finished reading Roger Deakin’s delightful Wildwood: A Journey through Trees. It’s nonfiction, but I give it my highest recommendation. SUPERB nature writing by a good writer who is just as interested as observing people as he is the natural world. His account of a journey to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to see forests of fruit trees in the setting where they first became domesticated had this woodworker and gardener drooling all the way through. Deakin also has some good passages on woodworking and woodworkers (he made furniture and turned bowls, and new all the woodworkers and sawyers in his part of England). But back to fiction: Deakin quotes several passages from Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders, and suggests that there are excellent descriptions of the workshops and working processes of people making a subsistence living as woodworkers in 19th-century England. I am going to give it a go next week.

    Thanks for helping me out with my Saturday morning procrastination! I have to clean my shop and get a set of drawer faces attached to home office built-ins today. Apparently I don’t want to get around to it!

    • Gracious, that’s a lot of early American fiction to read! I was never attracted to much of it myself, even the better material (although Irving does have his moments). So I’m intrigued to hear your take on all of it. I might have to take a look at Hardy’s The Woodlanders. He was trained as an architect, so he has a better eye for describing tradesmen than a lot of authors do.

      What you say about the rags-to-riches story makes total sense. I’m glad you put it that way.

  4. inorthwoods says:

    “Trustee in the tool room “ by Nevil Shute

    • I second that one. “Trustee from the Toolroom”, my immediate thought when I read this post. One of the great popular novels of the postwar era. Others by Nevil Shute – “Round the Bend” features an aircraft mechanic. “An Old Captivity” about a bush pilot. Nurses play the female role in several of his books. I think wikipedia nails it – “Shute valued the honest artisans and their social integrity and contributions to society more than the contributions of the upper classes”.

  5. John says:

    You’re no doubt familiar with a pretty famous book about the son of a carpenter? Perhaps not quite the intent of your inquiry.

    • Yes, four separate biographical sketches, and not a single detail about the woodwork in which we can assume he was trained. Even the metaphors and parables are drawn from agriculture and finance instead of from the trades!

      • John says:

        The focus was on his much more significantly benevolent efforts and the parables were spoken/written for an audience who’d have understood them better than woodwork, no doubt. I have no complaints.

  6. Bethany Joy says:

    Oh, this had my wheels turning! A few works I immediately thought of –

    * George Eliot’s Silas Marner — the main character is a cottage linen weaver
    * Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South – the main love interest owns a cotton mill, and many of the minor characters work in the mill
    * Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford Trilogy — I’m not sure I should count these as novels, since they’re really more fictionalized memoir, but the main character’s father is a tradesman (they made him a stonemason in the BBC adaptation, and he was either that or a carpenter in the books), and one of the books contains a really marvelous reflection on the narrator’s uncle, who is a cobbler in a home workshop.
    * George MacDonald — of course you have Curdie the miner in the Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie, but again, one might argue those are more fairy stories (which are *full* of tradespeople) than novels. However, his “realist” novels have several protagonists who are tradespeople, e.g. in Mary Marston, the titular protagonist is the daughter of a shopkeeper and a skilled dressmaker in her own right.

    Thanks for the fun scavenger hunt through literary memory — I’ll definitely keep my eye open for more examples.

    • Thank you for the recommendations! I must have read North and South at one point but don’t remember much of it now. I can immediately think of more textile workers in novels than I can woodworkers, and that’s an odd thing in itself. Do send more this way as you think of them.

  7. Jason in Golden says:

    Yet your item “E” is exactly the plot of most “reality” home improvement shows:
    1. Begin project to much fanfare
    2. Introduce setback and artificial drama
    3. Work excessively long hours and cut corners to complete project by deadline.

    • Yes, that’s a great point! Somehow it works really well on TV but less so in print–at least so far. Maybe some enterprising author will figure out how to write compelling “Fixer Upper” novels?

  8. Dr Rob says:

    Having read the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House on the Prairie” series to my daughters when they were young, I can recall a fair bit of detail about the manual labors required to build a homestead and tend the land and animals simply to survive. While they marveled about the girls, I was in awe of the myriad skills that Pa possessed to make it all work.

  9. Scott says:

    A very good, long novel spanning centuries in forestry and timber trades is “Barkskins” by Annie Proulx.

  10. orepass says:

    Making Things Right , Ole Thorstensen. Wonderful book, on a recent trip to Norway I wandered around the area of Oslo and even stopped bu the cafe mentioned in the book. The best restaurants are the ones full of craftsmen.

  11. John Silbersack says:

    A very short, almost poetic rumination on fashioning an axe helve (really that’s the only term that seems appropriate) can be found as one of the chapters in David Grayson’s novel Adventures in Contentment. It was separately published as The Axe Helve and is now available on-line: https://smallfarmersjournal.com/the-axe-helve/. Grayson was the pseudonym of Ray Stannard Baker, one of the original muck-raking journalists exposing corruption in industrializing America prior to World War One. He was a remarkable man who wrote passionately about the plight of Blacks in America and became one of the chief advocates for Woodrow Wilson’s vision of the League of Nations. Though I haven’t read them his early work included Shop Talks on the Wonders of Crafts (1895) and The Boys Book of Inventions (1900). I’ve always felt that The Axe Helve was the most perfect expression of the joy of making things that I’ve ever read.

    The rest of the Grayson novels about a thoughtful, well-educated man making a life for himself in the country and farming a few acres in New England are beautiful and comfortable, both.

  12. charrl says:

    Is anyone in the English-speaking world today writing compellingly about middle class contentment? Did Ray Stannard Baker write on the subject in the context of urban or suburban life, or are such works set strictly in rural settings?

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