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?