I’ve just read (belatedly) an interesting piece in the New Yorker on the financial novel in China. This genre, which is virtually unknown in the West, is huge in China. These novels are about life in the workplace, but they’re about a very American theme: how to survive, get ahead, and get rich. Their plots revolve around sales teams competing against each other, the rise and fall of stock prices, or the day-to-day corruption needed to get ahead in the Chinese bureaucracy. Romantic and emotional entanglements are unwanted and superfluous (editors advise writers to downplay such plot elements). Instead of romance, they have office renovations; their happy endings revolve around the purchase of an apartment and a big-screen TV.

To a Western reader, these plots and concerns seem mundane, and not the stuff of fiction. But as Chang points out, the competitive workplace is a new thing for the Chinese.

Competition in the workplace is a new experience. For decades, people inhabited familiar and stable settings – the village, the work unit. A nationwide system that assigned jobs to all college graduates was abolished only in the late nineteen-nineties. A decade later, promoting onself in meetings and interviews still feels unnatural; one person’s advancement means that everyone else is left behind. Workplace novels present white-collar jobs as a form of gladiatorial combat, because to most people that’s how it feels.

These novels are doing what the novel has always done: offered advice and instruction on how to function in an area of society which is new and frightening, opening up to a terrible new kind of mobility, advising on pitfalls and opportunities. A massive cultural change is taking place in China, and this new fiction – enabled, as Chang describes, by changes to the Chinese publishing industry – is helping Chinese workers to understand and navigate that change, using techniques drawn from both fiction and the self-help manual.

We see very little fiction in the English-speaking world which is even slightly interested in exploring our relationship with the working world. This is probably at least in part because of the rise of the professional writer – one of the perks of being one is you don’t have to spend a lot of time immersed in office culture.

But an awful lot of other people are, and I feel like fiction is doing us all a disservice by not examining it. My day job has very civilised hours – there are not that many advertising emergencies requiring my attention before 9 am or after 5 pm, although they do come up – but many, many of my clients work for organisations which routinely expect their staff to work well into the evening, and which have corporate cultures that require you to be willing to move cities or even countries in order to get promoted. This is awesome if you’re single and want to travel the world, but not so awesome for anyone who has a partner, or family responsibilities, or a life outside the workplace.

I think many of us have a creeping sense that the world of work is out of control, in a lot of different ways. There’s the sense that the financial sector is out of control and oeprating on a different level of reality from us, the sense that our corporations are more powerful than our governments, and at a personal level, that work, for a lot of people, is colonising every corner of our lives, in ways that are unwelcome but difficult to avoid.

And this, I think, is new, especially for women. Men, I think, have long accepted that their lives will be dominated by work. Women are still negotiating all this, and struggling with it: this is why you get so many anguished and angry arguments about the relative merits of having a career or dropping out to have babies, and the difficulties of trying to do both.

There is nothing new about this either – women were trying to find a place in the workforce in the 1890s, in the  1920s, in the war, and constantly since the 1960s – but whats IS new is that workplace culture for professional people at all levels seems to have become so all-consuming that it crowds out everything else. How do you manage a family life when no-one can leave the office until 7, 8 or 9 at night? When do you see your partner? Or your friends? And given that you spend so much time with your workmates, what does that do to your emotional life? What kind of relationships do you have when you haven’t chosen most of the people you spend your days with?

And then there’s the question of the work itself: if you’re spending 10 or 12 hours a day on work, what kind of satisfactions does that work offer? Surely it has to offer some kind of emotional satisfaction to justify that level of input, right? Right?

These are all questions that the novel could answer, or at least address, but it rarely does. Women’s magazines are talking about it – I think it’s kind of fascinating that mags are more interested in this kind of social inquiry than novels are – asking questions about how it feels and what the consequences are when you become hooked on the adrenalin rushes of work crises, for example. Women still aren’t used to thinking of ourselves as professional people, drawing a sense of self, of status, of being important, of being fulfilled, from the work that we do (unless it’s in the traditional caring professions). Women’s fiction still ignores what we do for work and what we get from work, in favour of our relationships outside of the office. It’s as if the professional self is someone we can’t really see, or know how to analyse yet, beyond the cliched representations of the ballbreaker, the back-stabbing office bitch, the psycho bitch boss…

So I think the time might be right for a new fiction of office life. Something that brings the nuanced understanding of office politics you see in Mad Men to our new, globalized, high-stress, total-connectivity, team-built lives.