Working girls on the page
September 27, 2011 6:09 AM   Subscribe

Looking for fiction about women and work.

You guys always come through with the reading recommendations, so here's my special snowflake request: I'm looking for fiction (preferably novel length), about women and work. If there is a romance, it should be a minor aspect or the story. The main viewpoint character should be a grown woman. The central theme and most of the action should be related to work, particularly ambition, interpersonal relations, and the problems of the work itself. Some kind of office setting preferred, not police/private investigators/coroners/journalists or mystery/action plots. The only example I can think of off the top of my head is A.S. Byatt's Posession, which is a great one, but more romance than I'm really looking for. Science fiction could be OK, but the more realistic, the better. Thanks!
posted by libraryhead to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Try Meg Wolitzer's "The Wife." While ostensibly "about" a marriage, at it's heart it has a lot to say about women and work... particularly creative work.
posted by nkknkk at 6:30 AM on September 27, 2011

Margaret Drabble's middle period: The Realms of Gold, The Middle Ground and so on.
posted by BibiRose at 6:42 AM on September 27, 2011

I was very impressed with the discussions about women, career and marriage that took place in Gaudy Night, particularly at how relevant they remained to the present day (the book was published in 1935). This might be because I am in academics and the action in the book takes place in a (fictional) Oxbridge women's college. There are no easy resolutions, but much debate.
posted by peacheater at 6:48 AM on September 27, 2011

Intuition by Allegra Goldman comes to mind.
posted by matildaben at 6:55 AM on September 27, 2011

Not set in an office, but does Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie fit the bill? I haven't read it for years, but I remember enjoying it quite a bit.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:58 AM on September 27, 2011

Some options, mostly 19th Century:

Recollections of a House Keeper, by Caroline Howard Gilman: Early look (from 1834) at domestic labor -- in a sense, the home is treated almost as an office.

Ruth Hall, by Fannie Fern (1855): About a woman becoming a journalist/author.

Life in the Iron Mills, by Rebecca Harding Davis (1861): Talks about the life of a factory girl.

Macaria, by Augusta Jane Evans (1863): Two main characters, one of whom is trying to launch a career as an artist. Written during the Civil War as propaganda -- it is interesting to see how Evans thinks women should engage in the war effort.

St. Elmo, by Augusta Jane Evans (1866): About a female author.

The Silent Partner, by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1871): About a woman becoming a partner in a business venture. This may be the best fit to the parameters you describe.

Work, by Louisa May Alcott (1873): Doesn't take place in an office, but involves a series of careers and living a productive life.

The Rise of Silas Lapham, by William Dean Howells (1885): A woman is increasingly excluded from running a business as it becomes more successful.

The Country of the Pointed Firs, by Sarah Orne Jewett (1896): Narrator is a writer, and one of the other main characters is an herbalist.

Her Land, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915): A utopian society ruled by women, in which women do all types of work.

The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton (1920): Treats courtship or romantic interludes as business propositions.
posted by rapidadverbssuck at 8:06 AM on September 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy, while science fiction, also deals with a woman who has a very subordinate job in academia.
posted by Danf at 8:07 AM on September 27, 2011

Little Women is about women and their work. Romantic interests are second shrift to playwriting, acting, and writing. While it is also domestic in its scope, it depicts women as complicated characters with ambition and diverse interests. More so than many modern novels.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 8:15 AM on September 27, 2011

I get to recommend one of my favourite books (and one of the funniest, too!). David Lodge's Nice Work.
posted by marais at 8:20 AM on September 27, 2011

Rona Jaffe's The Best of Everything -- office life circa the late 1950s, set in a publisher's office. (I personally found it depressing, but I know people highly recommend this, and it certainly fits your request for fiction about offices.)

Marian Keyes' The Other Side of the Story may have too much romance for you, but it's about two writers and a literary agent. The literary agent works in an office and one of the writers is an event planner. The question of work is a major one.

Molly Gloss's Wild Life. Women's work (as a writer) is a major theme running through the book; romance is a theme but less so. Work isnt' the central theme and it's arguably SF, but it's a terrific novel and I highly recommend it.
posted by pie ninja at 8:23 AM on September 27, 2011

Someone here just recommended The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe... I really loved it (felt like Mad Men meets Sex & the City in the best way), but as pie ninja mentioned, it's also pretty depressing. But definitely hits all the points you're asking for.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan is more of an ensemble piece, but some of the chapters deal with women working in publicity and the challenges they have to deal with within the modern media structure. Plus it's a great read.

And then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris is entirely set in a workplace, but has male and female main characters.
posted by Mchelly at 8:39 AM on September 27, 2011

Bel Kaufman's Up the Down Staircase is about a young female inner-city high school teacher in the 1960s. It's a sort of epistolary novel; the story is told not only through personal correspondence (letters to friends, notes the students pass in class) but also the paperwork associated with teaching: essays, administrative memos, suggestions from the suggestion box in the classroom.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:42 AM on September 27, 2011

This is YA fiction, and it's debatable whether the protagonist can be said to be an adult (she's a teenager, but it's the 1840's and she's an orphan who works for a living, so????). But I remember liking the novel Lyddie a lot.
posted by Sara C. at 8:42 AM on September 27, 2011

Mildred Pierce--dark.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie--in fact, all of Muriel Spark's heroines work. She's excellent at showing how annoying co-workers can be.

Winifred Wolfe--Ask Any Girl and If a Man Answers.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:54 AM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Also: Au Bonheur des Dames, by Émile Zola.
posted by hot soup girl at 10:03 AM on September 27, 2011

The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead - main character is female and the plot revolves around her elevator repair work. Not exactly realism, though.

Rise and Shine, by Anna Quindlen - two sisters; the POV character works at a women's shelter and her sister is a TV talk show host.

The Whole World Over, by Julia Glass- main character is a pastry chef.

Shopgirl, by Steve Martin, although this is heavier on the romance.

It's hard to think of ones set in offices, though! The Joshua Ferris suggestion made me think of Max Barry's books - they are sci fi and/or satire, and I think the main POV character is usually male, but they tend to have major women characters who play a major role in the office politics and they are very much about contemporary corporate office culture.
posted by yarrow at 10:52 AM on September 27, 2011

What about Margaret Atwood'd 'The Edible Woman'?
posted by bquarters at 11:28 AM on September 27, 2011

Jennifer Egan's Look at Me is partially about work, or the dissolution of it.
posted by OmieWise at 1:00 PM on September 27, 2011

Interesting and tricky question. The only one I can immediately think of is The Temp but I'll see if I can come up with more.
posted by paduasoy at 2:13 PM on September 27, 2011

The Devil Wears Prada?

I can think of many examples in biography and memoir, if you are open to those. Doctors, sushi chefs, etc...
posted by Riverine at 2:31 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Bellwether by Connie Willis is about a trends researcher at a company - it takes place in and out of the office (although as a trends researcher, she's always noticing things) with lots of funny Dilbertian office action and a mysterious grant one can't apply for but is bestowed (a la the MacArthur "genius" Fellowships). There is a bit of romance, but not too much.
posted by clerestory at 6:20 PM on September 27, 2011

Thanks for all the recs! Filling up my library queue now...
posted by libraryhead at 5:16 PM on September 28, 2011

« Older Create VMware virtual compatible image from old...   |   Do ousted male lions lose their manes? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.