Bonfire of the Clichés

There is a problem with the relationship between literature and business. But it’s not the one you think.

Linda Woodbridge’s Money and the Age of Shakespeare: Essays in the New Economic Criticism contains sixteen essays meant to establish the New Economic Criticism as a valid and important approach to the wealth of literary material that is available from “the age of Shakespeare.” Eleven of the sixteen essays use Shakespeare as their major or only literary source, and five of these are about only one play, The Merchant of Venice. Yet relying on The Merchant of Venice as the source for our image of Shakespeare’s attitude toward money means that we’re getting an impression that is about as reliable as depending solely upon Macbeth as the source for Shakespeare’s attitude towards marriage. Shakespeare wrote, after all, around 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and a variety of other shorter works. And Merchant is one of the briefest plays in his entire body of work. It is one small piece of the puzzle of how Shakespeare felt about money and markets.

In the same way that Shakespeare’s works dominate our thinking about literature in the English Renaissance, the novels of Charles Dickens dominate our thinking about literature in Victorian England. The standard reference points for talking about economics in the works of Charles Dickens, which both build the case that he is anti-business—A Christmas Carol and Hard Times—total up to 141,925 words, which seems like quite a few until you remember that Dickens published more than 4 million words. That’s about 3.5%, and that’s before you start counting the short stories and the nonfiction.

In other words, what we have here is a failure to calculate.

I’m making this point not merely for the fun of being a poet who gets to pick on economists for having a non-representative sample size, but because this kind of incomplete evidence is a plague in current discussions of markets and literature and produces nothing but problems for all of us who love both.

The first of these problems is the problem of deduction by reduction. Certainly if one Googles, for example, “Shakespeare and economics” one will turn up thousands of results relating to Merchant. Similar searches on “Dickens and economics” will lead equally rapidly and often to A Christmas Carol and Hard Times. For writers on a deadline, or professors looking for a quick literary allusion to add an air of interdisciplinary verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing lecture, this may not be so dire a problem. It is not, after all, inaccurate to say that Merchant has a troubling take on what it means to engage in business, or that Scrooge is not a model employer. But for someone setting out to discover the nature of literary opinions about business or markets, it is dire indeed, because the implication of those results—or a prowl through FirstSearch or JSTOR—is that these are the works where the desired information can be found. So everyone goes hunting in the same place, and everyone finds the same things.

Sometimes such unanimity of results means what you’re finding is the whole truth, but most often it means there’s a whole lot going unexplored.

Take Shakespeare for example. University of Chicago professor Richard Strier has recently written about Comedy of Errors that it is “a world of merchants—every one of whom is honest generous and admirable. …There is not a single lie or deception, not a single crooked, devious, or dubious monetary dealing in the play. Contracts are honored, and it is a matter of shame not to do so. Money in the play is neither filthy nor corrupting. No one is self-conscious about it, and no one is either greedy or miserly. It is taken as perfectly normal not to cheat and to expect not to be cheated.” Imagine how different our thinking about Shakespeare’s economics would be if Comedy of Errors had the same death grip on our imaginations that Merchant now does.

Or take Dickens. Hard Times is certainly a vicious attack on Manchester manufacturing, but Bleak House is just as surely about the waste of potential human capital that occurs when young men are not expected to engage in the world of work, and about the character-destroying qualities of financial irresponsibility. What would our vision of Dickens’s economics look like if it didn’t begin with Scrooge and end with Coketown?

Adam Smith scholars are familiar with this challenge, of course, as the arguments one has with people over Smith’s opinions and politics can depend, more or less entirely, on whether they have read Wealth of Nations or Theory of Moral Sentiments, or which one they have read more recently. We’re all familiar with the caricatures of Smith that end up in print as a result. And solving this part of the deduction by reduction problem is simple, if time-consuming. You have to read. More. You have to read, at least, both Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments in order to make serious arguments about Smith. And to make serious arguments about Shakespeare—rather than about one particular work by Shakespeare—or about Dickens—rather than one particular work by Dickens—you have to read, at the very least, a representative sampling of their output.

The other solution to the deduction from reduction problem is to stop reading the same things that everyone else is reading. The overlap among lists of “Best Business Novels” is shocking. Spend too much time with those and you could easily be left with the impression that the only literary works ever written about business are The Way We Live Now, Babbitt, and Bonfire of the Vanities. But there are enormous untapped and unanalyzed veins of literature just waiting for the economically-minded to come read them. Lyric poetry, for example, is filled with pleasurable erotic/economics puns on words like “use” and “interest.” Murray Rothbard has pointed to detective fiction as a useful model for thinking about private policing. Contemporary romantic fiction gives us what may be the most McCloskeyan novel ever written, Loretta Chase’s Silk is for Seduction, wherein the Duke of Clevedon must learn to appreciate and even participate in the bourgeois virtues of the dressmaker heroine, Marcelline Noirot. He helps her acknowledge that her job “isn’t employment. It’s your vocation.” And by the end of the book, they have gone into business, as well as bed, together. There is more, far more, literary discussion of markets and economics out there than most of us think.

So if there’s so much more material out there for us why aren’t we looking at it? That’s the second part of our problem–a kind of intellectual inertia. Given the well-founded suspicions that free market and libertarian types have about top-down proclamations from experts, we seem oddly eager to trust expert judgments about the amount and meaning of the economic content of literary works. We seem willing to forget that some literary critics may lack a good solid background in economics and may, therefore, not be fully alert to the richness of the economic picture painted in a particular text. They may even not realize that a discussion that, to them, seems to be about politics or romance, would sound a lot different to an economist. Public choice theorists, for example, would have a field day with the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Henry V, where two churchmen persuade Henry to invade France in order to distract him from a bill pending in parliament that would take church lands for the Crown. And the marriage negotiations in Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Shuttle should keep economic historians and property rights theorists busy for months.

We also have to be willing to overcome that intellectual inertia and revisit (or shamefacedly visit for the first time) the texts about which “everybody says” the same thing in order to see if what “everybody says” is really true. Let’s go back to Merchant of Venice for a moment. We all know it’s anti-market, right? Everybody says so. But in addition to its extremely negative presentation of parts of the business world, the play contains some good lessons about the value of diversifying one’s investments, the importance of avoiding the sunk cost fallacy, and (as my brother, Dan Skwire, has argued elsewhere) the need for marine insurance. How about that famous anti-industrial novel Hard Times? Another look reminds us that it’s not just about the evils of Coketown manufacturers. It is also about the nefarious union organizer, Slackbridge, who willfully destroys the character and life of the honest and forthright Stephen Blackpool when he declines union membership. Get your information from the experts, instead of from the authors and their texts, and you’ll miss all of this.

Get your information from the experts and you’ll take Algis Valiunas at his word when he says Theodore Dreiser is anti-business because of his Trilogy of Desire. The trilogy is a faintly fictionalized account of Charles Yerkes who, as Valiunas notes, was “the sultan of urban street railways who helped modernize Philadelphia and Chicago and made one of the great American fortunes.” You won’t find out, because Valiunas fails to mention it, that Yerkes illegally risked (and lost) a huge amount of public funds in the stock market and then wormed his way out of prison by blackmailing politicians. One can see why Dreiser might not be a fan. One can see why those who are interested in keeping corporations and government out of each other’s pockets might want to read Dreiser for themselves.

But the problem with the whole debate over whether literature is pro-market or anti-market is not simply that people have been reading the wrong things or not enough of the right things, or taking on other people’s opinions without testing them. It is that the whole debate is a false one. It is trying to make literature do something that it does not do well. The surest way to write a bad novel, after all, is to write it because you really want to teach someone something. A single lesson hammered home for pages upon pages does not make for an entertaining novel. Literature, particularly poetry and full-length fiction in the form of novels or dramas, thrives on subtlety and complexity. This is because it affords the space to explore a whole range of opinions and attitudes towards a problem as well as a wide set of responses and possible outcomes. To expect a novel by any reasonably good and intelligent author to be always and all ways “on message” about anything—be it business or religion or love or death—is to expect a novel to be no more than a campaign speech. And that is a foolish error. As Tyler Cowen notes, “Now, some things actually are good vs. evil. We all know this, right? But I think, as a general rule, we’re too inclined to tell the good vs. evil story. As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you’re telling a good vs. evil story, you’re basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more.”

Literature is not for clear answers. Literature is for complicated questions. There is vital empirical data in literary texts—not data about economic fact, though there is some of that as well, but data about how people felt and thought and wrote about economic and market issues. If we care about that, if that is as important as Deirdre McCloskey has argued, we have a responsibility to find that data, to write about it, to share it, and to teach it. Otherwise, we are going to continue to drown in a sea of articles with titles like “Do All Novelists Hate Business?” and filled with assertions like “The business of America may be business, but the business of American literature in the past century has been largely to insist that the nation is, in pursuing business, wasting itself on unworthy objects.” We are going to keep hearing absolute tosh along the lines of the assertion that “The impulse to become a writer suggests a fundamental fiscal incompetence.” (Anyone who could say that must be unfamiliar with Dr. Johnson’s observation that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” as well as with the deep truth uttered by, I believe, Neil Gaiman, who noted that fans are always sorely disappointed to realize that when groups of authors get together the discussion is not about art and culture, but about royalties and contracts.)

If we don’t do this empirical work, if we allow others to set the terms of this debate, if we accept the same old assessments of the same old sources, if we simply and weakly agree that yes, “literature is anti-market,” we are conceding a frontier that we do not need to concede. We are giving up eloquent discourse and humane arguments and weighty support that we do not need to concede. We cannot afford to surrender literature without a fight. And every time we do, we are increasingly rhetorically impoverished, emotionally bereft, and culturally bankrupt.

Also from This Issue

Response Essays

  • Three At-Risk Children of the Enlightenment by William H. Patterson Jr.

    William H. Patterson, Jr. reflects on the origins of liberty, commerce, and literature as we have come to understand them today. He finds that all three have a common root in the European Enlightenment. History, however, often comes in cycles or waves, and the fortunes of all three have risen and fallen over time. He expresses the hope that each of the three “at-risk children of the Enlightenment” will flourish in the coming decades.

  • The Economics of Shakespeare… and His Critics by Frederick Turner

    Frederick Turner offers a structural explanation for why literary scholars have been so eager to supply anti-commercial readings to the western canon. Literary criticism began among gentlemen; it then passed to the anti-commercial meritocracy of the universities. But alternate readings exist, and Turner even offers a startlingly pro-commerical reading of The Merchant of Venice.

  • Stranger in a Familiar Land by Amy H. Sturgis

    Amy H. Sturgis argues that much of the apparent anti-market bias in literature stems from elitism. By excluding genre fiction, mainstream literary critics also exclude many thoughtful and provocative treatments of markets and their place in political economy. Often the excluded works are highly sympathetic to libertarian ideals. Fiction shapes public opinion, including public opinion about markets, and popular fiction by definition reaches more than any other kind.

The Conversation