Corporate Scandals

The 10 Best Business Novels. Or Not.

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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.

NEXT: We the Living Dead

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  1. Agree totally with your S&M comment about Rand’s Fountainhead. If it had been written 30 years later, I would swear that she intentionally made her hero a rapist just to piss off the feminists.

    However, Atlas Shrugged has to be on the list of best business novels. I know libs love to distance themselves from her polemics, but no other work has painted such a compelling picture of business, or spawned more entrepreneurs (or wannabes).

  2. Not to nitpick, but it’s Jim Rockford.

  3. Not to nitpick, but it’s Jim Rockford.

    Not according to Angel.

  4. I can’t quite understand what is meant by Business Novel. My first thought was Eli Goldratt’s “The Goal”.

  5. Don’t know about classy or not but Yes Minister/Prime Minister are truly, truly hilarious.

  6. I would propose the novels of C.P. Snow, which, while focusing on the worlds of academia and government shed light on the types of rivalries and competition that exist as well in the business world.

    In looking back at “business novels” I’ve read (and many of the ones listed), can’t recall many except Rand’s that depict businesses and businessmen/women in a positive light. Characters often flawed, guilt-ridden about success, neglectful of families, etc.

    Also, I would suggest that the current dearth of business novels has more to do with the fact that so many nonfiction books are being written about companies, their leaders, etc.

  7. Seriously, don’t go baggin’ on Yes, Minister.

  8. Chet Richards’ Certain To Win: The Strategy Of John Boyd, Applied To Business

    wait…wait…

    that’s not a novel

    how about Kaleidoscope Century by John Barnes?

  9. Anyone ever read “Reminiscences of a Stock Operator” by Edwin Lefevre? It inspired me to become a trader…. then I lost all my money 🙂 Neverthless, a fun book, especially for finance guys.

  10. What about the greatest business hero in modern literature, Milo Minderbinder in Catch-22?

  11. Wow, there must be no MBA’s on this thread, or at the AEI! How about Liar’s Poker, a great read on life as a bond trader, or Barbarians at the Gate, a fascinating account (well for MBA students anyway) of the RJR Nabisco merger. These are from the go-go times of the 80’s, but I am sure that there are many more.
    I have to agree with H-dawg about Atlas Shrugged, one of the books that really started me down the libertarian path. And Nick, did you have the same US History class I did in college? Who else would possibly have read McTeague?! That whole class was filled with equally depressing books about life in the West.

  12. I think I’ll just wait for the Wiki Page.

  13. Where’s JAMES GOULD COZZENS!?

    He’s one of the few novelists who have actually understood business. Morning, Noon and Night (1968) is his most direct treatment of corporate life. His other novels focus more on professionals (lawyers, doctors, high-church protestant clergy) — The Last Adam (1933), Men and Brethren (1936), The Just and the Unjust (1942), By Love Possessed (1957). All of them delve knowingly into making a living.

    His best novel, Guard of Honor (1948), deals with the Army but is also a business novel in a sense. It’s the best fictional portrayal ever of a modern, complex organization — in this case, the U.S. Army on the homefront in the middle of WWII.

    Get them, read them, give the man his due!

  14. quiet one,

    I think both those books are better than anything mentioned here, but they are not novels.

    Let me throw out another plaudit to Yes, Minister. What a great show. In college I took a class called “Foreign Policy Process,” taught by a former Undersecretary of State. He made us watch Yes, Minister because he said it was the most realistic depiction he had ever seen of how governmental decisions really get made.

  15. That’s “The Way We Live Now” by Mister Trollope, thank you.

    It’s like “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”, except it’s fiction and very, very funny. For goodness’ sake, we should embrace this work–its reading might come at the expense of some part of Dickens’ manifesto.

  16. J.R. by William Gaddis, though I’d heartily second Gatsby and Catch-22.

    Anon

  17. anon,

    +1 for J.R. Since Gaddis also wrote the best novel about the law, A Frolic of His Own, that gives ownership over two disciplines.

  18. Possibly short on literary merit, but Noble House may be my favorite novel set in the business world.

    I agree with above that Barbarians at the Gate my be my favorite non-fiction business book. The story is better than a novel, really.

  19. Not even an honorable mention for Harold Robbins’ The Betsy.

    There is no justice in this world.

  20. Hey, I liked A Man in Full, except that it was gruelingly long. Tom Wolfe obviously had way too many subplots stuffed in and could have used a brutual editor to trim it down. I thought the whole section that took place in Croker Frozen Foods– the nice-guy married schmuck who saves his punk buddy’s life, only to be downsized and lose out because of seniority– was an excellent piece all by itself.

    Bonfire of the Vanities was an excellent novel, but boy, the movie version sure sucked bigtime.

  21. seconds on man in full. i lived that book. a superb novel. charlotte simmons, on the other hand, sucked donkeys.

  22. I loved “A Man in Full” too. Haven’t gotten to “Charlotte Simmons” yet.

  23. Why not “A Christmas Carol?” 🙂 My boss used to keep lowering the temperature in the office until you could see your breath, and I got to loudly quoting Scrooge whenever he went to check it. The moral of the novel is that Being an Evil Fuck is Not Best Practices in Corporate Governance. Plus You Will Be Regularly Nagged by Ghosts.

    The idea of the list is stupid. ‘Novels about businessmen’ arent anything other than novels. It’s arguable that they say anything more about business than they do about life in general. Well, I take that back… Drieser’s novel is about business. 🙂 which is why I repressed ever reading it.

    Gillespie is all about nerdy lit shit.

  24. andythebrit,

    Clearly, you never got stuck with a warehouse full of Egyptian cotton.

    Anyway, you’re all wrong. The greatest business novel ever was Dune. As Wikipedia puts it, the Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantile “controls all economic affairs across the cosmos”. Pretty good, don’t you think?

    A close second is Conrad’s treatment of the fine-tuned operation of Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.

  25. The hero of “A Man in Full”, and the character to whom the title refers, is Conrad Hensley, who was not a businessman. I think there must be a lot of copies of this novel circulating about where Charlie Crocker, who is a businessman, is the hero (or anti-hero).

  26. Have heard good things about “Executive Suite” by Cameron Hawley. The movie’s pretty good, too.

  27. Catch-22, definitely. Heller did another novel later ostentatiously set in a corporation but supposedly not as good.

    Does it have to be a novel? Otherwise I’d put in a plug for Machiavelli’s The Prince.

    How about The Smartest Guys in the Room? Also When Genius Failed.

    Also would recommend Memoires Found In a Bathtub, by Stanislaw Lem. He approaches Kafka…

  28. “The Soul of a New Machine.” It’s not exactly a novel, but it reads like one. Also “Conspiracy of Fools.” Some yahoo will no doubt try to point out that it’s not a novel, but 80 percent of it is made up. Author Eichenwald could not possibly have gotten primary source material for passages like this:

    “Skilling pulled away; a look of terror in his face. He was wide-awake now, wild-eyed and breathing rapidly.

    ‘Rebecca, you need to go,’ he said.

    ‘Jeff…,’ Carter said, reaching for him again.

    Skilling recoiled. ‘Get the fuck away from me!’

    Carter stood, astonished. ‘What?’

    ‘Get the fuck out of here! Get away from me!’

    ‘Jeff…’

    ‘Leave me alone! I don’t want to see you!’

    Carter stared at her fiance, her eyes welling up. Nothing, not a sound or movement, interrupted the moment.”

    Novel.

  29. Another cheer (or two) for Yes, Minister – which taught a rather young wotsac two important lessons:
    -government is structurally incapable of functioning efficiently.
    -organizational life is largely a battle between incompetent good intentions and incomplete ass covering.

  30. My nominee would be “First Contract” by Greg Costikoyan — set in the near future, capitalist aliens arrive at Earth precipitating an economic collapse as they flood the market with cheaper, superior goods, but a human entrepreneur fights back by finding humanity’s comparative advantage in a galactic economy. I think it’s arguably the most pro-free market, pro-free trade work of fiction I’ve ever encountered (yes, even more so than “Atlas Shrugged”, which is rather short on actual business dealings).

  31. Whoever mentioned Guard of Honor by Cozzens is right on. But a better artist, who should be on top of any list, is J.P. Marquand, who,in books like Point of No Return, Sincerely,Willis Wayde and B.F.’s Daughter, showed what it feels like to have a business career better than any other writer I know.

  32. I have nothing to add. I do, however, want to thank all of you for having this thead tonight. I spent four and a half hours at the ER tonight with my older son, who broke his arm this afternoon. He snapped his right humerus, and bones are now side by side. The ER said he didn’t think Andy would have to have surgery. I’ll find out for sure tomorrow. The break was bad enough that three of the techs on duty made a point of telling me that they wouldn’t have been as good as he was if they had that kind of an injury. He got morphine for the X-rays. He’s asleep now, and my husband and I will spend most of tomorrow in doctor’s offices. Anyway, I have that horrible exhausted-but-wired feeling that makes it impossible to either do anything useful or sleep. So, I’m reading blog entries about business novels. Nothing could have done a better job of getting my mind off my troubles.

  33. “Why not “A Christmas Carol?” 🙂 My boss used to keep lowering the temperature in the office until you could see your breath, and I got to loudly quoting Scrooge whenever he went to check it. The moral of the novel is that Being an Evil Fuck is Not Best Practices in Corporate Governance. Plus You Will Be Regularly Nagged by Ghosts.”

    You’re way off Gilmore! …but that’s alright–“A Christmas Carol” is without qualification the single most misunderstood text in the English language. Let me explain.

    Consider the “Hard Times” this book is written against. While everyday life couldn’t possibly be as bleak as Dickens suggests, we have to suspend our disbelief, at least to understand what’s motivating good ol’ Mr. Scrooge.

    It’s cold outside, in Dickens world, and there are hungry people everywhere, many of them unemployed. Why, there’s little doubt that the good Mr. Scrooge could replace the guy working for him with little difficulty. Not only is it cold outside, not only are the streets rife with easy replacements, but the employee in question actually has a sick child at home. He has responsibilities. …but does the employee think about what’ll happen to his sick child should he lose his job? NooOOOOoooo.

    He whines, “It’s Christmas. I want to go home.”

    Here’s Mr. Scrooge, working himself on Christmas Eve, poor soul’s had to work his whole life to get where he is, and he’s got the compassion to keep this ingrate on the payroll…and all the jackass wants to do is go home.

    Much of the rest of the book, in tedious detail, tells the story of how the sheer audacity of one ridiculously ungrateful employee drives poor Mr. Scrooge completely mad. Yes, he starts seeing apparitions, and they spout some of the most ridiculous, unquantifiable arguments I’ve ever heard. In poor Mr. Scrooge’s weakened state, however, shocked as he is by his employee’s ingratitude, the good man actually finds their petty arguments persuasive! Think about it–by the end of the story, Scrooge has gone completely insane–he’s literally throwing money out the window!

    You really think that little urchin comes back with a goose? Ha!

    Poor Mr. Scooge goes to his employee’s house–mad as a hatter–and showers the jackass and his family with gifts! Yes, it’s frightening to think that someone could allow himself to be driven out of his mind so by an underling, but it happens! I’ve seen it happen myself.

    “A Christmas Carol” is a warning, people. …a warning to every hard working, thrifty businessmen who will listen. “Don’t let this happen to you.”, Dickens is saying.

    …but everyone misses the point.

  34. My favorite “business novel” is “Don Orsino,” by F. Marion Crawford. It is the third of his “Saracinesca” series set in mid-19th century Italy. In this book, the son of an aristocrat finds himself caught up in a financial bubble, a real-estate bubble.

    Most business novels seem to be about financial chicanery in relation to boom-and-bust cycles! The Trollope book has been mentioned. Also worth mentioning is “The Embezzler,” by Louis Auchincloss. Auchincloss projects some sympathy to the alleged (and then convicted) embezzler. (Like in our recent bust, this is a case where financial fiddling got caught largely because of the downturn in the general economy. An acute observation, this.)

  35. Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (isn’t this a book about sado-masochism and rock quarrying?)

    Yeah Nick. It’s a book about sado-masochism. And rock quarrying. Yuck yuck. My sides ache.

  36. Hope everything comes out okay for your son, Karen. Kids sure are self destructive 🙁

  37. Thanks, Pro L. He’s not in much pain this morning, although last night wasn’t great. I’ll report back when we get the permanent cast on. First thing this morning, though, he asked to go to school so that his classmates could sign his cast.

  38. Thanks coyote, shouldn’t have forgotten Clavell in all this. Noble House et al are kick-ass. Stuff you cannot put down for a sec and thats literary merit to me. Hate the idea that literary merit can only mean that you can spend millions of student-hours disecting a book and ascribing all manner of thoughts or intentions to the author, who would probably find most suggestions wholly batty. No wonder this is usually done after the author is dead.

  39. Not to nitpick, but it’s Jim Rockford.

    Not according to Angel.

    Isaac Hayes (Gandolph Fitch) was the one who called him Rockfish. IIRC Angel always called him Jimmy.

  40. It’s not a novel, more of a novella or extended short story, but I have to throw in a strong recommendation for Robert Heinlein’s 1940 Magic, Inc. It recounts the struggle of a small businessman to protect his magic business against the state government’s efforts to regulate the magic profession (which regulation is initiated by the large corporation after which the story is named).

    The story does a great job of showing how professional “standards” tend to serve the interests of large corporations over smaller independents. It contains some priceless scenes (especially a 12-page sequence when the protagonists go to the capital, think they have defeated the bill, and then learn it has been passed as a rider to a public works appropriation).

    A must read.

  41. My nomination: Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs. He can be sort of arch about it all, but it’s a great read about geek culture and entrepreneurship.

    Love the mention of Henry Reed – some of my favorite books as a kid.

    Ditto the earlier comments on “Man in Full”–this is a fine book, especially for a doorstop.

  42. Pro Libertate like so totally wins with Dune!

    It’s all about the corrupting affect of the Big Spice lobby in Arrakis. Of course it also contains the bonus jihad theme too. So there you go, something for everyone?or the whole family, or whatever.

  43. “Liar’s Poker” of course is actually a novel (if not nominally) — most memoirs are actually novels.

    “Noble House” indeed is a nice read. “The Moneychangers” by Arthur Hailey is rather trite but gives a good look into the statist and left-liberal mainstream of the pre-Reagan years. The same holds for “Wheels” and “Hotel” whereas “Strong Medicine” is more modern anti-business.

    “Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street” by David Payne is a pretty weird book and a nice business novel (well, sort of)

    “Soll und Haben” by Gustav Freytag is a classic (and maybe too anti-semitic) but there’s always L’Argent (The Money) from Zola one can fall back to.

  44. List is worthless without “The Goal”

    It’s almost surreal in it’s silliness.

  45. Has to be a novel? Dang.

    Mark Twain-Tom Sawyer-Fence-Whitewash.

  46. I agree with coyote and Cartman on “Noble House”. And “Tai Pan” is just as good.

  47. You’ll need your tin foil to keep your prozac in

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