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March 6, 2014updated 11 Jan 2016 2:11pm

Beyond comic books, why are there so few wealthy people in literature?

By Spear's


Something I have touched on before here: then, whimsically; now, in earnest. How does fiction deal with HNWs?

My whimsical point, by which I stand, is that if you look for positive fictional treatment of HNWs, far and away the richest seam is superhero comics — where the likes of Bruce Wayne, Reed Richards and Professor Xavier use their bottomless bank accounts to fund careers fighting crime and prejudice or saving the world from intergalactic threats.

The serious point — and it is one implied by my whimsical point — is that positive treatment of HNWs in the culture is not really in any sense a literary one. Comic books don’t work like other forms of fiction: they are essentially open-ended mythological soap operas.

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Their characters are, figuratively as well as literally, two-dimensional. Their wealth is a fact about them like super-strength or red hair. It has no dynamic dramatic component. It exists in the background: a plot-enabler; a permanent deus ex machina.

Money (along with class and romantic love) has been a mainspring of storytelling since Robinson Crusoe — homo economicus in a banana-skin hat. King Lear is about money — at least ostensibly, at least in the beginning. Jane Austen’s plots are all about money.

George Eliot shows us agonisingly, in Middlemarch, what it means on a day-to-day basis for Lydgate to have a wife determined to live beyond his means. Let’s not get started on Mr Micawber. Money is scorekeeping in the ‘bourgeois realist’ novel. But it’s also a concrete metaphor at the individual level: it is a sign of potency and need.

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Yet money in fiction almost always registers, dramatically, as lack: there is narrative torque in not having quite enough money, but none (apparently) in having too much. When it comes to cash, it’s either ruination or the fortune that provide the dénouement.

Jack gets the goose or the bag of gold, kills the giant and lives happily ever after. You seldom hear how he went on to arrange his tax affairs, whether he bought back Daisy the cow, and what it meant to him that he spent the rest of his life living with his mother. Isn’t that a failure of the imagination?

Professional poker players may learn to treat $10,000 chips with the insouciance most of us reserve for 10p pieces, but wherever you put the decimal point, the psychology remains the same. You don’t stop lacking, needing, coveting and fearing because you have a Ferrari or four in the garage.

Worlds apart

I suspect that the situation has been complicated in the last half-decade. The rich and the not-so-rich in the high days of Victorian and 20th-century fiction at least seemed to occupy the same social world — they sat in the continuum of a settled class structure.

Now there is the perception that they don’t: that there is a global class of the internationally wealthy who are barely rooted in the social web from which the novel traditionally grows, and that is reflected in the treatment of wealth in fiction. Novels can’t get their teeth into it any more than I can get mine into a burger at the Ivy.

Nobody in Henry James is exactly hard up. And one thinks of Fitzgerald, that poet of the fatal glamour of money, especially. His claim that ‘the rich are different from you and me’ was apocryphally slapped down by Hemingway: ‘Yes: they have more money.’ But in purely formal terms — as regards the novel — Fitzgerald has become more right and Hemingway less so.

Tom Wolfe, in The Bonfire of the Vanities, perhaps registered this with his notion of worlds that only collide when moneybags takes the wrong off-ramp on the freeway.

The banker or hedgie currently has a place in state-of-the-nation fiction — such as John Lanchester’s Capital or Sebastian Faulks’s A Week in December — but we do seem short of novels in which HNWs are the protagonists. In Dave Eggers’s rather magnificent A Hologram for the King, the man with the money is a Godot figure: ethereal, Other, permanently awaited and never showing up.

Perhaps it is simply assumed that the disproportionately well-off forfeit a claim on the average reader or viewer’s sympathy: that if the drama continues after the fortune is made, in other words, it isn’t drama of the sort that anyone is going to want to hear about. If so, that seems to me to be an opportunity missed.

To quote one of the wisest of the many wise remarks of the aforementioned George Eliot: ‘If art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.’

Who will set a novel or a film — containing a fully rounded HNW with problems and an inner life — in the modern world?

The bar, at present, seems to be set by EL James’s Christian ‘Fifty Shades of’ Grey. All respect to his way with love-eggs, spanked bottoms and expensive branded appurtenances — but don’t you reckon we can do better than that?

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