Thursday, May 8, 2014

Corporate Fiction as High Drama






Judging by the shortage of corporate fiction, you might be led to believe that there isn’t much drama in the corporate world.

Here’s what I mean: How many novels have you read that take place in offices? Or in factories?

Probably not very many.

Maybe none, in fact.

This is somewhat surprising, when you think about it. A large percentage of the fiction out there could be fairly described as, “fiction in which the nuts-and-bolts of a particular profession plays a major role.”

And we aren’t just talking about the professions that involve guns and car chases (though of course those are included, too).

Let’s look at some of the more common types of “professional fiction”:

Medical: The example that comes to mind here is Robin Cook. Most of Cook’s novels are “doctor procedural” novels of one sort another.
  
Legal: Is there anyone out there who hasn't read a John Grisham novel by this point? His breakout novel, The Firm, is a fictional account of life inside a mafia-dominated law firm. 
Police procedural: Police work probably provides more fictional opportunities than any other profession. My personal favorite in this genre is Michael Connelly, author of the Harry Bosch detective series.
  
Education: A surprising number of novels are set in schools or colleges. Consider Stephen King’s Carrie, and Bernard Malamud’s A New Life.
  
Educational institutions aren’t obvious settings for novels. When you think about it, schools and colleges are relatively tame, safe environments. I think the large body of “school novels” springs from the fact that so many people who are drawn to writing fiction are also drawn to teaching. (Stephen King, to cite only one example, was a high school English teacher before he “made it”.)
  
Military: This one is obvious. Military life is filled with conflict, danger, and moral dilemmas. My favorite practitioner here: W.E.B. Griffin.
  
Spy/espionage: This category is related to the above one, of course; but it is nevertheless distinct. Whereas military fiction focuses on men and women in uniform, spy fiction deals with those who go on missions behind enemy lines. You’ve no doubt read (or at least heard of) John le CarrĂ©, Vince Flynn, and Brad Thor. They all write (or wrote, in the case of the late Vince Flynn) spy fiction.

But when was the last time you read a novel about a machine tool salesperson? Or a purchasing agent? Or a woman who works in the accounts payable department of a large corporation? Probably you haven’t. If these professions appear at all in fiction, they are usually present only as dim back stories—but never as the main events.

I noticed this several years ago. It occurred to me that this dearth of “corporate fiction” underserves the market for two reasons.

First of all, a large percentage of the reading public works in cubicle farms, suburban office parks, and factories. (A much higher percentage, I would wager, than those who work as spies, law enforcement officers, or green berets.)

Secondly, there is plenty of conflict and drama in the corporate world, especially if you are willing to see the potential for the “big stories” there.

Let’s get back to John Grisham’s The Firm. Now, The Firm is a great book; and I don’t begrudge John Grisham a single dollar he’s made from it. But let’s be honest: There aren’t many law firms like Bendini, Lambert, and Locke—the fictional one in which the equally fictional Mitch McDeere encounters so much trouble. Most law firms are pretty mundane places, and so are the lives of most lawyers.

John Grisham (a former attorney himself) created the universe of The Firm through a two-step process: a.) Grisham applied what he knew about law firms and the legal profession, and b.) Grisham asked a series of “what if” questions: What would happen if a small, exclusive law firm in the American South were dominated by mafia interests? What would happen if a young lawyer decided to rebel against this arrangement?

I came up with the idea for my novel Termination Man through much the same process.

Termination Man is set in an automotive manufacturing firm—an environment with which I had a deep (if not always happy) familiarity.

My what-if questions arose when I read a nonfiction book about the marginally ethical practices of corporate HR departments. That gave me the starting point for the story, which you can grasp from the book’s Amazon.com description:





A long forgotten double murder of two young women in Ohio. A struggling corporation in turmoil. Two powerful men, two bitter rivals, each one hiding his own secrets. One driven by lust and rage, the other driven by a conflicted sense of right and wrong.

***TERMINATION MAN***  
“The novel that takes an unflinching look at the dark underside of the 21st century workplace.”  
 CRAIG WALKER is a hotshot young MBA with his own consulting firm. He’s handsome, rich, and in demand. His Fortune 500 clients—the most powerful men and women in industry—call him “The Termination Man.”  
Craig Walker is no ordinary management consultant. He’s a spook, a workplace spy. Assuming false identities, Craig works undercover, building the evidence that will allow his corporate clients to terminate unwanted employees without legal repercussions. His targets are the troublemakers, the agitators, the employees whom management believes are no longer “good fits” for their hyper-competitive organizations.
  
Craig Walker believes that he serves the cause of economic efficiency, and in a way, the greater good. Most of his targets don’t like their jobs anyway. In a free market, “a firing isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. Sometimes an employee needs to leave a bad a situation.”  
SHAWN MYERS is a manager at TP Automotive, a global giant in the automotive industry. Shawn struggles to control his lust and rage, and to escape a hideous past that might catch up with him at any moment. His forbidden desire for a girl young enough to be his daughter threatens to drive him over the edge.  
 When TP Automotive hires the Termination Man to remove two innocent employees from its payroll, Craig Walker is forced to reexamine his notions of justice and morality. But these questions are soon overwhelmed by the dangers that he faces from the TP Automotive management team. After Shawn Myers commits a heinous act in Craig’s presence, the Termination Man discovers that his new clients will resort to any means in order to protect one of their own.


Perhaps you can see the what-if questions in Termination Man:

What would happen if a rogue consulting firm specialized in doing the “dirty work” of corporate human resources departments?
  
What would happen if one of these consultants—in a particularly extreme case—found himself torn by the moral dilemmas that this work imposed?
  
How far would management go to enforce their will if that consultant resisted them? Would MBA-educated executives resort to violence if enough was at stake?


Termination Man is an unusual novel for the U.S.; it would not be so unusual in Asia—especially in Japan.

Although corporate novels are rare in the English-speaking world, they aren’t rare at all Japan. I began my career as a Japanese language translator (long story); and I’ve read a number of Japanese novels, as well as manga.

Many of these novels and manga are targeted at Japanese salaried employees. Writers and publishers in Japan have long recognized that corporate types enjoy reading about themselves.

One of the most successful business-themed manga series in Japan is Shima Kousaku. The eponymous Shima Kousaku is a middle manager in a Japanese electronics firm. This long-running series contains drama, physical danger, and conflict that could match any John Grisham novel.


A few editions of the Shima Kousaku series. The Japanese title is "Buchou Shima Kousaku" or "Shima Kousaku, Manager"



Why don’t American novelists write corporate novels as compelling as Shima Kousaku? I asked myself.

So I decided to write one myself: Termination Man.

Since I’d spent so many years (twenty of them!) in the corporate world, I was able to bring a certain “authenticity of experience” to Termination Man. Inside this novel you’ll find meddlesome human resources bureaucrats, sniping, scheming coworkers and (highly) dysfunctional bosses. You’ll also find some insights into the automotive industry.

At its core, though, Termination Man is about the conflict between the desire to do what needs to be done as a good employee (i.e., a “team player”) and what a moral individual must do in order to sleep at night. It’s about the difficulties of self-preservation in the twenty-first century workplace, where companies are now managed for shareholders, rather than “stakeholders”.

In a larger sense, Termination Man is a book about the compromises that we all have to sometimes make in the highly competitive, global economy.

In my view, this is the stuff of high drama. As a reader of Termination Man, I think you’ll agree.