What to Read When You Want Story Collections about Working Lives
Since my late teens, I’ve been fortunate enough to always have some job to pay my bills. These have been wide-ranging: waitress, bartender, engineer, marketeer, financial advisor, yoga instructor, tech executive, and more. While each job has brought its own complications, defeats, and accomplishments, they’ve all made me the person that I am today. Naturally, how our work shapes us as individuals has been a source of endless fascination for me in both my reading and my writing.
As a first-generation immigrant, my work has always driven my sense of belonging and identity. Work has brought me escape, immersion, loss, alienation, and loneliness. It has directed the trajectory of my personal life with its conflicts and successes, tragedies and triumphs, joys and sorrows. I don’t see work and life as opposing forces that must be balanced but as coexisting, codependent aspects of one’s self. Whether our work is meant to help us survive, strive, or thrive, if we’re doing it for several hours daily, it changes us and becomes our way of being in the world.
When I began to write the stories in my debut collection, Each of Us Killers, there was no grand plan to create an entire collection centering on work. But, inevitably, I could only find my way into a character’s life through their work. And, as a reader, I desperately wanted more stories about brown people like me dealing with work-related challenges—whether driven by class, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, or nationality.
While there has always been fiction about the working class and specifically about working lives, work-themed story collections like the ones below have become more widely acknowledged in the last five years or so. All but three of these books came out after I’d finished writing my collection. I can’t claim them as inspiration, but I’m grateful to share the same literary universe. I hope we’ll see more such collections in the coming years because, whether our labor is visible or invisible, paid or unpaid, our everyday working lives allow us the opportunity to change the world around us—for better or for worse.
The Wild Birds: Six Stories of the Port William Membership by Wendell Berry
I discovered this classic in 2019, when Counterpoint reissued it. Set in Berry’s famous and recurring fictional town of Port William, these six stories feature a lawyer, Wheeler Catlett, and his clients. The stories cover a wide span of time from the 1930s to the 1970s, and each shows how a town and its people are connected to each other through their occupations and their land. Berry’s much-admired poetic and environmental sensibilities yield keen, precise observations of old-fashioned community and agrarian values. We are drawn into these charming narratives, told in eloquent (if archaic) prose, as if they’re timeless folktales.
Our Working Lives: Short Stories of People and Work, edited by Bonnie Jo Campbell and Larry Smith
In her introductory essay to this anthology, Bonnie Jo Campbell writes that the twenty-one contributing authors “show us, through these stories, that somebody else’s job can be as exotic as a foreign country, as dangerous as a battlefield, as complicated and weird as somebody else’s sex life.” Co-editor Larry Smith writes that the stories are about “giving respect and space for the worker to speak his/her grief and joy within a collective sensibility, creating a form that exposes the effects of oppression and how character can be molded in resistance.” Each of the included stories is an illustration of how work creates meaning and resilience while being a source of both hope and despair. Our Working Lives was published by Bottom Dog Press, which focuses on publishing works by, for, and about working people, as part of their Working Lives series.
Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work, edited by Richard Ford
These thirty-two collected stories span a wide range of workplaces, from barrios to the corporate office. The book’s proceeds went to the literacy nonprofit 826Michigan, to fund their free youth writing, tutoring, and publishing programs. There are some big names in here: Alice Munro, Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates, et al. Not every story centers the workplace, and not all go deep enough into workplace issues. But they all demonstrate how the institution of work goes beyond “labor, job, paycheck, vocation, and career,” as Richard Ford mentions in his introduction. My favorite among the included stories is, of course, Jhumpa Lahiri’s story, “Interpreter of Maladies,” from her debut collection of the same title.
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
This posthumously published collection has a cracking introduction by another short story master, Lydia Davis. Filled with semi-autobiographical details, these forty-three stories often chronicle aspects of Berlin’s own working life, from toiling in laundromats to cleaning mansions. Berlin’s prose is unlike any other writer’s, though critics have equated her biting humor to that of Grace Paley and her storytelling economy to that of Lorrie Moore. Ruth Franklin had it right at the New York Times Book Review: “Some short story writers—Chekhov, Alice Munro, William Trevor—sidle up and tap you gently on the shoulder: Come, they murmur, sit down, listen to what I have to say. Lucia Berlin spins you around, knocks you down and grinds your face into the dirt. You will listen to me if I have to force you, her stories growl.”
One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist by Dustin M. Hoffman
Hoffman won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize for fiction for this collection about blue-collar Midwestern workers. Painters, carpenters, salesmen, truck drivers, and more populate the sixteen stories within Hoffman’s book. Whether underemployed, homeless, retired, or fired, each character here has so much life, passion, hunger, and energy that we cannot help wanting to run into them after finishing the book. Hoffman utilizes different points of view to reveal plot and character in unusual and memorable ways, and there’s a magicalism and musicality to the narratives such that readers feel the specific details of the characters’ lives are unfolding right before our eyes.
Kevin Kramer Starts on Monday by Debbie Graber
When I first read this book, its office drama and politics felt rather painfully real to me; the stories brought to mind some not-so-fun experiences from my own corporate life. Because of those memories, I’d steered clear of setting any story in my own collection in that space. Graber’s exploration of office culture shows how it can be done, and done well. Her satire reminds me of George Saunders’s writing, though Graber has an incisive bite all of her own. She makes us reconsider the absurd rituals and warfare that exist within professional workspaces in fresh new ways, using varying craft techniques. Most of all, she makes us question our own biases and prejudices about corporate workplaces—and the people who inhabit them.
Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan
Unnikrishnan’s award-winning linked story collection about Indian (mostly) guest workers in the United Arab Emirates was rightly hailed as a new kind of immigrant narrative when it was released in 2017. Foreign nationals make up more than sixty or seventy percent of the population in the UAE. There has been plenty of reportage about the way they are treated, with many calling the situation a humanitarian crisis. During the COVID-19 pandemic this year, things have only gotten worse. Using hybrid narrative forms, surreal symbolism, mythology, and clever satire, these accounts illustrate how economic, professional, and social progress can often lead to dehumanization. Unnikrishnan also blends English, Malayalam, and Arabic to create a unique polyphony of voices that stay with us long after reading.
Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls: Stories by Alissa Nutting
The book’s blurb tells us that these seventeen stories are “spread across time, space, and differing planes of reality.” What that really means is that Nutting uses her imaginative powers to create surreal and unreal jobs along with the weird and wonderful women doing them. There’s cybersex, cryogeny, futuristic ant farming, and more. In true Nutting style, the stories are darkly twisted, grotesquely humorous, and disturbingly sad. Through it all, these women are searching for their personal power. Whether they find it or not is beside the point; what they and their stories reveal to us about gender, authority, desire, conformity, and the female body is what’s most important here. As with all of Nutting’s fiction, we also learn to appreciate the beauty in the bizarre and the broken aspects of our humanity.
Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Friday Black was easily the best work of fiction of 2018 to examine racism and consumerism in America. Whether narrated as straight realism (as with the breathtaking opening story), or near-future dystopia, or post-apocalyptic nightmare, each story demands our full, undivided attention. Adjei-Brenyah’s settings are of the everyday kind—a mall, a parking lot, a hospital—but his characters are uniquely memorable. His work has the edgy humor of his mentor, George Saunders, and the vivid characterization of Black experiences seen in the work of writers like Marlon James and Colson Whitehead. This is the kind of writing that prods us, humanely and shrewdly, into examining our own prejudices and biases.
Fight No More by Lydia Millet
Fight No More is the second linked collection on this list. A real estate agent in Los Angeles, Nina, goes about her work and meets all kinds of people at various phases of their home ownership journeys. This is a terrific premise to begin with because it literally allows the protagonist to open different doors into hidden realities. Millet skillfully makes each story stand on its own while also providing just the right kind of connective tissue to bind them all together as a whole. A key idea examined here is what “home” means to different people. It’s not always about safety and solace; there’s often anxiety, disruption, and fear lurking within those four walls. Millet explores these different kinds of homes through both real and surreal scenarios.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Jenny’s debut story collection, Each of Us Killers, forthcoming on September 8 from 7.13 Books! – Ed.
Each of Us Killers by Jenny Bhatt
Stories woven at the intersection of labor and our emotional lives. Set in the American Midwest, England, and India (Mumbai, Ahmedabad, rural Gujarat) the stories in Each of Us Killers are about people trying to realize their dreams and aspirations through their professions. Whether they are chasing money, power, recognition, love, or simply trying to make a decent living, their hunger is as intense as any grand love affair. Straddling the fault lines of class, caste, gender, nationality, globalization, and more, they go against sociocultural norms despite challenges and indignities until singular moments of quiet devastation turn the worlds of these characters—auto-wallah, housemaid, street vendor, journalist, architect, baker, engineer, saree shop employee, professor, yoga instructor, bartender, and more—upside down.