The 10 Best Business Novels. Or Not.


Over at The American (the American Enterprise Institute's nicely revamped commentary magazine), the editors have compiled a list of "The Ten Best Business Novels."

Topping the charts is Theodore Dreiser's The Financier, which I've read and enjoyed (what's not to like about a book that spends what seems to be a 1,000 pages describing a battle to the death between a lobster and a squid and then following up with a plot about mass transit scams in turn of the century Philadelphia?). However, why it's at the head of a list of books supposedly chosen first and foremost for "literary merit" is a real brain buster. I have no interest in arguing whether someone is a "great" stylist (such aesthetic distinctions are by turns vapid and masks for other agendas, methinks), but really. Dreiser not only writes like English is his third language, he makes the reader feel that way, too.

Other titles making The American's list include Balzac's A Harlot High and Low (go Vautrin, go);  Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full (puh-lease: this book, despite–or perhaps because of–George W. Bush's recommendation, sucks; and don't you get the idea that Bush needs to have someone even listen to audio books for him?); Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead (isn't this a book about sado-masochism and rock quarrying, not business per se?); Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (reportedly the book that put Terri Schiavo in a coma); and something by Trollope (whatever it is, I'm sure it's even classier than an episode of Yes, Minister).

The point of such lists is to make people bitch and moan, so please proceed to do that. And throw in your neglected faves too.

Mine would include The Great Gatsby (an obvious choice but Meyer Wolfsheim is one of the great unacknowledged heroes of American Fiction); Mildred Pierce (who hasn't baked a pie and dreamed of making millions?); and at least two of the Henry Reed kid novels (Henry Reed's Baby-Sitting Service and Henry Reed, Inc.; Reed was the original nerdtrepreneur).

And where for god's sake is McTeague, typically read as a cry against capitalism and greed (indeed, it's the basis of the von Stroheim film with that name) but in fact a broadside against dental licensing laws (really, even if the author didn't quite intend it that way). And speaking of Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities is a great tour de force in terms of "literary merit" (not that I care about such trifles!) that helped create the '80s' ethos even as it was documenting it; more important, it's a fascinating look at Wall Street culture, commerce, and money.

One final thought: The depiction of businessmen as scumbags and low-lifes–was there ever a '70s detective show in which the businessman wasn't the bad guy; how the hell did Mannix, or Barnaby Jones, Jim Rockfish, or even Banacek, for christ's sake, ever make it out the parking lot alive when the cornered malefactor would sic his goons on them?–has no effect on the real world whatsoever. Except when it actually motivates them to kill Ceaucescu and worship Larry Hagman. Which, admittedly, is a mixed bag. But it's something.