Should a novelist be interested in economics?



When I was at university in the 1980s, I wrote an essay on the American writer David Henry Thoreau, and said he was interested in economics. My tutor’s reaction is still clear in my memory: “Literature is not about economics!” he declared. This was quite shocking. I thought literature could be about anything. But no. I guess it had to be about star-crossed lovers.  The fact is, however, as Alfred Marshall wrote: “Economics is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life”. Economics, seemingly an esoteric dark art confined to forbidding institutions is really about what we do everyday; going to work, or being unemployed, going out shopping, or staying in and watching television. Economics like literature, can be about anything.


Money is the common currency, something virtually all of us have, and something which divides us. People are divided by how much they earn. This seeming inevitability hasn’t always been the case. In hunter gatherer societies surviving today, there does not seem to be a tendency to gather private property. Resources are more likely to be shared out, rather than hoarded by a few individuals. Both John E. Pffeifer in The Creative Explosion and James Shreeve in The Neandertal Enigma begin their explanations of human social development by pointing out that hunter gatherer societies rarely have a leader. Modern Kalahari Bushmen have no specific leader, and train their children from an early age to share all they have with each other. Charles Darwin remarked on the same social arrangement in the natives of Tierra del Fuego, during his famous voyage on the Beagle. He met the Fuegians on a freezing, rainy day, and wondered at their condition as rain ran over their entirely naked bodies. “In Tierra del Fuego, until some chief shall arise with power sufficient to secure any acquired advantages, such as domesticated animals or other valuable presents, it seems scarcely possible that the political state of the country can be improved. At present, even a piece of cloth is torn into shreds and distributed; and no one individual becomes richer than another” (The Voyage of the Beagle P184). There is a sad truth in Darwin’s words. People aspire to nicer things, a better life. They look at other people and covet what they have. In this way, economies are driven forward. They depend fundamentally on some people having a great deal, and others having much less. But of course this division is never going to be stable. The fluctuating struggle between necessary social division and necessary reaction against such division is a fundamental aspect not just of economic history, but of history itself, and the literature which has been written by people living through it.

So, yes, its perfectly acceptable for novelists to be interested in economics.

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