Business' best fictional heroes

Why are business people usually baddies when they appear in fiction? The profit motive is shorthand for personal selfishness – but is this perception fair?

Why are business people usually baddies when they appear in fiction? The latest is John Veals, a greedy London hedge fund manager. He gleefully wrecks the British financial system in A Week In December, a novel by Sebastian Faulks. All he needs to complete his villainy are moustachios to twirl. Veals and his cronies make such remarks as "shorting [shares] takes rugby-sized balls”. Real hedgies surely never say that. They must have some sense of irony.

Veals joins an extensive rogues’ gallery of business bad hats. A ranking of the wealthiest fictional characters, compiled by Forbes, lists a few. There is multimillionaire Scrooge McDuck, whose characterisation as a miserly waterfowl in a top hat does not bespeak respect for real wealth creators. There is energy boss C. Montgomery Burns, whose one-liners include "what good is money if you can’t inspire terror in your fellow man?” And there is Jabba the Hutt, a giant libidinous slug who, in truth, bears more resemblance to some politicians than any businessman.

Inc, another US magazine, nominates Dr Seuss’s forest-trashing Once-ler and the gangster Tony Soprano as leading fictional businessmen. "Tony is the master of getting to Yes,” Inc points out. This struck a chord. I once met a heftily-built entrepreneur who, just like Tony, had started off in waste management. I later queasily learnt that he resembled "T” in other ways. Like being in the mob.

In 2007, Sir Howard Davies of the London School of Economics complained in an FT article at the lack of novels featuring business people. He should have been more careful what he wished for. His call, thanks to the credit crisis and ensuing recession, will now be answered by a slew of novels in which crazed financiers dance in hob-nailed boots on the prostrate proles.

One reason that novelists rarely write about business is that the subject makes dull fiction when the economy is stable. Descriptions of accountants reading spreadsheets are unlikely to spawn a page turner. Business becomes a more interesting subject when one of western capitalism’s sporadic busts occurs. Then there is an opportunity to write a long novel featuring several well-developed characters that exposes the essential moral vacuity of contemporary life. The businessman presents himself as the oven-ready villain. Just slam him into your narrative and jack up the disapproval rating to 240 degrees.

Anthony Trollope did this in The Way We Live Now. That novel charts the spectacular rise and fall of Augustus Melmotte, a promoter of shares in railways, a go-go investment sector in Victorian London. Melmotte is rumoured to be a swindler, but his upper crust investors are blinded by greed. It serves them right when his Ponzi scheme implodes. Pandering to 19th-century British prejudices, Melmotte is lower class and Jewish. So too is Veals, whose bagel jokes and homburg one could do without, this being 2009.

Sherman McCoy, the protagonist of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, published as world markets tumbled in 1987, is, in contrast, a Wasp bond trader on Wall Street. McCoy is complicit in the manslaughter of a poor black, whom his cultural programming dictates that he mistakes for a mugger. This middle-aged, middle-class man is a seething mass of unresolved contradictions. Middle-aged, middle-class men generally are. Wolfe unerringly nails both the character type and the febrile zeitgeist of the 1980s asset bubble.

You have to rewind to 1957 and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged for a novel in which business people are mostly heroes. The villains here are over-regulating politicians. This gives the work some of the flavour of a CBI policy briefing. However, Atlas Shrugged is an exception to a generally negative rule.

Business types often wind up as the baddies in fiction because the profit motive is a convenient shorthand for personal selfishness. Business people rarely become novelists themselves and redress the balance because cursory cost-benefit analysis shows that the risks of a writing career typically outweigh the rewards. The average reader is, moreover, disinclined to identify with characters earning multiples of her own yearly remuneration. A tale in which a magnate’s success turns him into a miserable recluse – Citizen Kane, for example – is far more comforting.

Attempts to counter the insidious anti-business bias of the liberal arts establishment have had a flustered air. The press baron William Randolph Hearst banned all mention of Citizen Kane from his newspapers, confirming suspicions that the fictional tycoon was based on him. The timber industry’s counterblast to Dr Seuss’s Once-ler, a pro-logging picture book, is out of print.

It is time to have another go. For a fee, I will write a series of kids’ books featuring such lovable cartoon characters as Mr Liquidity, The Hedge Fund Manager and Little Miss Integrity, The Ratings Analyst. Double the figure, and I will pen a novel in which an altruistic banker uses state subsidies to fund loans to deserving borrowers rather than bonuses for himself. It might even sell. Fantasy, the popular genre that stretches credulity beyond normal bounds, is very popular these days.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009


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