Recognizable by the bright front doors on their covers, domestic noir novels have become an established genre in recent years. But we don’t have a term for their office counterpart yet. And yet there is just as much power in this setting.
Pretty much the same extremes of human experience are at play there. Colleagues take on the emotional weight normally absorbed by family members; parts of our most personal belongings often lurk under desks and in drawers. Few jokes are as powerful as the office jokes, but the mood can quickly change with the pressure of an angry boss or a missed deadline. The office is a place of extremes, intense with the buzz of the industry and the threat of failure, and that’s a perfect starting point for fiction.
As a writer who finds it helpful to anchor fictional plot and characters in a place or environment I’m familiar with, I started thinking about the idea of using the office environment for my fourth book. While I now work from home, I dove into the anonymous armpits of fellow commuters daily for years and made my way to the office. What happened on floor 34? puts the workplace front and center in the action, and here I’ve chosen other books that do the same.
1. The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger
I was lucky not to have encountered a truly horrible boss when I first read this, which means I could only enjoy it as the sharp and funny novel that it is, about a young woman who goes to work for the tyrannical fashion editor Miranda Priestly. By the time I got back to reading it again, I’d worked in more offices and the Miranda Priestlys of my own life made it resonate in a different way, Priestly grim in her reign of terror. Soon after, I went freelancing.
2. Then We Got to the End by Joshua Ferris
Offices are places where great comedy can be found. Booker’s shortlist Joshua Ferris captures this humor in this character-driven novel featuring a huge cast of eccentric characters; it is tender and tragic at the same time.
3. The Circle by Dave Eggers
This novel, published nearly 10 years ago and based on a Silicon Valley social media giant, was incredibly prescient. The Circle shines a light on the way we give our all to jobs we love and sees Mae land the gig of her dreams. Before long, work is her life. A cautionary reminder to pay attention to your work-life balance.
4. Not Working by Lisa Owens
I don’t laugh out loud at books; this is still one of the few novels that has forced an audible cluck from me. Not Working technically lands on this list – it’s actually about leaving an office – but I’d argue that the workplace and its role in shaping our identities is at the heart of this novel because of its absence, as Claire struggles to to find her feet without the marketing job she quit.
5. A Far Scream from Kensington by Muriel Spark
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many novels set in offices choose publishing as their industry of choice. In Spark’s story, we travel back to the post-war London bookshop, where the blunt, no-nonsense Mrs. Hawkins (favourite phrase for a terrible writer: acopy pisser”) manages to lose not one but two jobs, her witty memories of 30 years later.
6. The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe
Jaffe’s excellent novel (which turns out to be reading material for Mad Men’s Don Draper) charts the arrival of women in the office in 1950s New York. It tells the story of three young women, Caroline, April and Gregg, who work in a typing pool in New York and balance their jobs with the various pressures of their lives. The book goes deep – Jaffe interviewed 50 women about the most private parts of their lives for her research – while giving it a lightness that makes it feel more modern than it is. Glorious.
7. There is no such thing as an easy job by Kikuko Tsumura
This novel – translated from Japanese by Polly Barton – came at a relevant time. Published in 2020, it is about an unnamed thirty-something who walks into a temp agency and asks for a job that requires minimal thought. The book took a closer look at the workplace and its role in our lives, just when many had just left it behind and settled for Zoom calls and elasticated waistbands. Quietly hilarious. Absurd. Definitely worth reading.
8. The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
An important book that delves into race and class within the publishing world. When Nella joins Wagner Books, she is part of a new generation of editors in a predominantly white industry. Then comes Hazel-May, the ‘other black girl’, and before we know it the book takes a different tack and we are in the atmosphere of a thriller.
9. Career by Daisy Buchanan
I’m a big fan of Buchanan’s writing and would read a manual if she wanted to publish it afterwards, but the description of this 2022 novel in particular intrigued me. Buchanan explores our relationship to our work in the painstaking detail we often reserve for romance, telling the story of two women at a crossroads in their careers as magazine journalists. Bursting with empathy and humour, this book will get your heart racing.
10. Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
I was borrowed this while working on What Happened on Floor 34?, at a time when I usually look for books that are removed from what I’m writing. It wasn’t until I opened Clare Chambers’ massive word of mouth that I realized it was also set in a newspaper office and by then it was too late to put this wonderful book down. I was hooked. Chambers uses the germ of journalist Jean’s story—a woman who contacts her claiming that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth—to form the novel’s own narrative. A beautifully crafted gift of a book.