I have steered the topic of this discussion in a direction of my own: I want to address the novel’s relationship, not to the most desperately poor, but to the poverty of time from which all kinds of adequately-fed people suffer. I’m looking for answers to how laborers who work long, or even just routine, hours show up in novels as readers. I’m interested, to put the cards closest to my heart on the table, in the sociology of this question at a point in history where it seems that work and reading have entered a new and intense moment of round-the-clock competition for our time.
To begin, we might simply register how difficult it is to squeeze sustained reading—reading, say, of serious novels—into a working week. Youth, J.M Coetzee’s fictionalised account of the years he spent in London in the early 1960s, offers a blunt representation of the clash between office routine and this kind of intellectual activity. Determined to follow in the footsteps of Wallace Stevens, Kafka, and T.S. Eliot, all of whom held clerical day jobs, Coetzee’s protagonist takes a job as a programmer at IBM. Its 9-5 hours, John calculates, will leave him time to hunt the bookshops and dwell in the library; in its margins, he will write his masters thesis on the novels of Ford Maddox Ford.
The job turns out, however, to involve much more than 40 hours a week: “at his grey-topped desk in the big IBM office he is overcome with gales of yawning that he struggles to conceal; at the British Museum the words swim before his eyes” (59). “How can one write,” John wonders, “when tiredness is like a gloved hand gripping one’s brain and squeezing?” John’s engagement with Ford becomes half hearted. He calculates the time that is slipping away from him each week: “In a short while the Reading Room will close for the day, the whole great Museum will close. On Sundays the Reading Room does not open; between now and next Saturday, reading will be a matter of an hour snatched here and there of an evening” (56).
There is little evidence here of the mastery of time that Rancière attributes to the 19th century French worker poets in Proletarian Nights. For those workers, Rancière argues:
Emancipation … was the attempt to conquer the useless, to conquer the language of the poet … the leisure of the loiterer. It is the attempt to take the time that they have not.
While John manages to remain a weekend writer, the poetry he produces becomes shorter and shorter, his handwriting literally shrinking on the page. As a reader and a student, he feels himself “what IBM has made of him: a eunuch, a drone, a worried boy hurrying to catch the 8.17 to the office” (110). Under these conditions, he watches film, reads the paper, and listens to the radio, but he does not study properly until he resigns from IBM.
John’s calculations suggest that the worker’s position as aspirant reader of novels is one of inevitable structural disadvantage. His efforts are linked loosely to those of Forster’s Leonard Bast, the insurance clerk from Howard’s End, who tries diligently and pointlessly to make Ruskin’s sentences come into focus against the reality of tinned meat and short evenings in his damp basement flat. But the difference, or the one I want to tease out, has to do with the two moments in history at which these characters are created, one at the very start and the other at the very end of the twentieth century. While Bast signals a future in which Howards End might still be read, Youth looks back on that once-promised decline of work historically, viewing the conditions of temporally demarcated office labour as relatively hospitable to reading after work.
It’s not John who sees this, however. As a reader, he rails against office work. His position coincides historically with E.P. Thompson’s famous 1967 essay, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Thompson tells the story here of the forced and never entirely successful habituation of the nineteenth-century workforce to the temporal requirements of industrial conditions of production. But the readers Thompson addresses most directly are in revolt against that equation: they are the 1960s students and readers of literature he aligns with the seasonal workers, with tribal life, with Wordsworth rejecting the regimes of office work for poetry. As part of the same chorus of dissent with work, we can hear Siegfried Kracauer denouncing the lives of the salaried masses in the 1930s; Peter Weiss on the attempts and failures of the twentieth-century proletariat to forge an aesthetic practice of their own. And we can hear John Berger, writing only a few years later in The Seventh Man of the migrant labourers upon whose life-consuming work the new factories and infrastructural projects of post-war Europe depended—and whose lives without hope of transcendence make a lie of the whole modern project.
In these arguments of the 1960s and 70s, addressing workers as readers means calling on them to struggle for a new form of life. The factory worker with his endless repeated gestures; the office worker, chained to rhythms other than her own are destined in the revolutionary logic of these argument to become obsolete. Despite the prevailing Protestant idea of working men bootstrapping their way towards education; despite the historical achievement of reduced working hours (in 1871 the average male worker spends 56 years of his life working; by 1981 it falls to 46). Despite these facts, the employees of the 1960’s addressed by Thompson and Berger and Weiss are not fated to become readers by degree, nor by dint of their personal economy, or the victories of the Trade Union movement. Rather, their lives are represented as crowding out reading—the impossibility of workers picking up the novels in which they are represented drives these novels’ investment in a different allocation of time to come.
Coetzee’s own elective affinities are, as I’ll suggest more forcefully in a minute, with the successful worker-artists of the early twentieth-century—or at least with Rancière, for whom the worker poet’s poaching of time is possible. His character John is aligned, however, not with the young Thomas Hardy, who managed to combine work as an architect with reading at the British Library three evenings a week, but with his character Jude Fawley, whose reading career begins and ends in desperate awareness of the time he does not have. Coetzee riffs upon the older novel as John, like Jude, sets his heart upon the acquisition of the classical languages: “unless he learns Chinese and Persian and Arabic, or at least enough of the languages to read their classics with a crib, he might as well be a barbarian. Where will he find the time?” (26). Later when John becomes a computer programmer doing shiftwork in Cambridge, Coetzee describes him as “a skilled workman in the pay of the university, not a collaborator entitled to speak on an equal footing with … [its] brilliant young scientists” (157). Both John and Jude have physical access to the university – one carves its stones, the other writes its codes — but they are divided from its students by the way they spend and allocate time. As Jude puts it: “Only a wall divided him from those happy young contemporaries of his with whom he shared a common mental life; men who had nothing to do from morning till night but to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.” (80).
Jude and Leonard Bast and John all suggest in different ways the investment of the serious novel in the time that will ideally be given to its consumption. Even as it was written and produced by men like Thomas Hardy, Dickens, Trollope; even as it was serialized, divided into chapters, sold in paperback, consumed by schoolchildren, the serious nineteenth-century novel remained invested in the idea of the best readers having more time than the average clerk or labourer. Whether or not Jude Fawley and Leonard Bast’s failure properly to read properly after work is realistic, their representation helps the argument that was mounting politically and theoretically during the first part of the twentieth century, that the novel’s own ideal time for consumption would be won by rejecting patterns of regulated, alienated work.
In this sense Hardy and Forster participate both in the revolt against work life which is associated with maximizing of profit and in modernity’s orientation towards a future in which leisure will be more equitably distributed.[i] But what of Youth? Youth is written about the 1960s rejection of work for art but it is not itself of this moment. Coetzee’s life story – after London, he went to Texas and became a graduate student of English – makes it tempting to read Youth as anticipating the time for reading that lies in John’s future. But Youth does not end by giving him that time. In its final chapters, John has found another job working for a programming company based outside London in which there is no on-site computer to dictate human patterns of work. Here “he arrives for work in the mornings looking forward to the tasks that await him. To stay alert he drinks cup after cup of coffee; his head hammers; his brain seethes; he loses track of time, has to be called to lunch. In the evenings he takes his papers back to his rooms … and works into the night.” These working conditions make him simultaneously happy and, in Coetzee’s terms, dead. Atypical of the 1960’s, they are prescient of what Jonathan Crary has recently described as our 24/7 form of life. Now, Crary argues, we work and shop and communicate around the clock, forgoing any sense of differentiation between these activities. “What is new”
is the sweeping abandonment of the pretence that time is coupled to any long-term undertakings, even to fantasies of “progress” or development. An illuminated 24/7 world without shadows is the final capitalist mirror of post-history, of an exorcism of the otherness that is the motor of historical change” (9)
In scenes that we might read as part of a clever back-formation on Coetzee’s part, the John of 1964 works irregular if long hours, travelling to feed his programmes overnight into computers at Cambridge, admiring the brilliance of colleagues who work even more erratically. In this state he stops, as Coetzee puts it, yearning. “Instead he reads books on chess, follows grandmaster games, does the chess problems in the Observer. He sleeps badly, sometimes he dreams about programming” (144). Youth leaves John an early but absolute victim of the breakdown between work and its other; the historical and biographical promise of a different time to come, of a future for reading, is excised by the short novel’s close.
This makes Youth a novel much more sophisticated than its simple narrative structure suggests. In the three years John spends in England, Coetzee pushes him through not one but two historical cycles of working in ways differently inhospitable to reading. In his first incarnation as a worker at IBM, John cannot read because of the relentless drive to keep the machine running– because he is fixated on a post-revolutionary future in which there will be proper time for literature. In the second, this future is lost; he is permanently immersed in a life with puzzles to solve but robbed of all desire to read or to live otherwise. The sense that this second form of life might be typical of a whole new era, and the end of modern work altogether, is beyond John’s purview. But it’s not beyond Coetzee’s.
From the perspective of the 21st century, connecting the death of John’s reading to the satisfactions he finds in a nascent version of 24/7 life, Coetzee makes a move that is both conservative and nostalgic. Presenting us with a contrast between these two forms historical forms of working life allows Coetzee to recast John’s work at IBM as relatively benign. This is a betrayal of the 1960s visions of Berger and Thompson and Weiss, who equate routine work in different ways with intellectual death, as well as a betrayal of the ambitious Victorian and Modernist novels, which present themselves as things that will only be read properly by readers once they have more time. Instead, from the perspective of the 24/7 life Youth previews, Coetzee suggests that Eliot and Stevens and Kafka might have been correct to see art as something that could be scaled to fit the interstices of work. Speaking recently from what would have seemed in the 1960s an anti-revolutionary position, Coetzee has advocated writing and reading best approached with discipline and duty, as a kind of work. Formally, this helps explain the strange energy of Youth as a short, economically told novel, made in some ways to be read after work, to be slipped in.
But this also brings me to my broader conclusion, which is it that historically the best novels have been strongly invested in working readers having time to spend with them—not just to read, but to learn languages, to know and respond to a canon. The novelist’s sympathies may not always have been with readers of the leisured class – in the cases I’ve looked at here, it’s the worker who matters more. But novels such as Hardy’s and Forster’s help make twentieth-century versions of manual and clerical working lives things to overcome. The irony, of course, is that we are now at a point in history where those twentieth-century working conditions seem relatively hospitable to novels, things that can be read and re-read in robust but finite slices, after work. Writers on modern time like Crary and Helga Nowotny mourn the very kinds of differentiation that John vilified as a would-be reader in the 1960s. The ring-fencing of work from other kinds of intellectual activity, the normalizing of work hours, vilified then, has become the stuff of fantasy for the online reader today. In this sense, we are all with Coetzee, who in one kaleidoscopic move seems to be showing us why John didn’t read on weekends and whispering to him from the perspective of the future to relish the differentiated form of time he has.
What Youth offers is thus a hard lesson to face: that once-detested rhythm of twentieth-century work life, one that some of our most cherished theorists fought against, may become one we will look back on as having given workers at least some designated time to read novels. We might, of course, reject this conclusion by saying that reading is something for which workers have always struggled to find time; an activity that has been consistently parcelled out and squeezed into the ordinary day in different medial forms for which there has never been the ideal fit. But even if this is the case we might still, I suggest, note an alliance that once existed, and exists no longer, between mid twentieth-century social theory and the nineteenth and early-twentieth-century novel that projected forwards the image of an age where education would be more democratic; where industrialization would more efficient; time for reading easier to find. If Youth takes stock of that fantasy and its loss, it does so from a contemporary position in which that future no longer seems ours—or the novel’s, or critical theory’s—to grasp.