Turning the recession into fiction

Ashley Milne-Tyte Jun 5, 2009

Turning the recession into fiction

Ashley Milne-Tyte Jun 5, 2009


TESS VIGELAND:Summer’s near, the time is right for dancin’ in the streets and picking up a good book for some beach reading. What better way to escape the economic doom and gloom, right? Well, give it another few summers and we may be reading about today’s facts in tomorrow’s fiction. The Great Depression produced, among other literary giants, John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” And some novelists are already at work on books that make our economic story part of the plot.

Ashley Milne-Tyte reports.

Ashley Milne-Tyte: Therese Flanagan started working on her first novel in 2005. All she knew then was that her heroine would be an art student in Chicago, Flanagan’s home town. But soon the outside world began to infiltrate her plot.

Therese Flanagan: All the social talk was about “What’s your house worth?” Everybody was getting rich the same way. And you knew it had to stop.

She named her novel “American Gothic.” The housing market hadn’t yet crashed. But she’d already decided the fate of one of her characters, the father of the art student. He’s a contractor who borrowed like mad to build a 30-story condo building.

Flanagan: All of a sudden the bankers started calling in their lines of credit and his world starts to unravel in ways he didn’t expect. Because he’s always been able to fly through. But leverage became the god.

Sound familiar? Flanagan’s agent is just starting to shop her book around. She may be among the first wave of writers to weave the latest boom and bust into their fiction. Agents and editors aren’t giving much away, but they say real life makes its way into novels. Peter Mayer is president of The Overlook Press. He’s worked in publishing for decades.

Peter Mayer: This will appear in our fiction.

But he says it’s not necessarily timely subject matter that hooks readers.

Mayer: If you’re a serious publisher, you publish books, because they work. In other words they are written well, the reader identifies with the characters, the context seems to be real whether he’s writing about the French Revolution or the failure of Lehman Brothers.

Mayer says Tom Wolfe achieved all that 20 years ago with his bestselling novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” In this extract, the wife of Wall Street bond trader Sherman McCoy tries to explain to their daughter, in a Marketplace-y kind of way, how the bond business works.

Excerpt from “The Bonfire of the Vanities:” Just imagine that a bond is a slice of cake. And you didn’t bake the cake but every time you hand somebody a slice of the cake a tiny little bit comes off. Like a little crumb, and you can keep that.”

Charlotte Abbott is a contributing editor for Publishers Weekly. She says “Bonfire of the Vanities” may be the defining novel of the go-go 1980s, but the events and people it described were centered in one place: New York.

Charlotte Abbott: But what is the locus of this recession? There’s a New York story, there’s a Florida story, there’s, you know, it has tentacles all over and it also has international components.”

Abbott says there’s been so much good non-fiction about the financial crisis, it could give novelists quite a challenge. But a good yarn inspired by fact can resonate long after it’s published. Take this scene from the recent PBS series of Charles Dickens’s novel “Little Dorrit:”

Scene from “Little Dorrit:” Seems he was stealing from one fund to pay another, issuing shares without collateral and now it’s all blown up and burst — nothing’s left”

It’ll probably take a few years of hard work before a modern Madoff character appears on bookstore shelves. As for whether anyone will want to read such novels by then, Peter Mayer says quite possibly.

Mayer: They’ll want to read them if the characters are well drawn, if the plot is meaningful still.

He says given how many lives are being changed by this downturn, those plots could resonate with plenty of readers.

In New York, I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace

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