The Favor of Another: Labor and Precarity in Contemporary Fiction

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The Favor of Another: Labor and Precarity in Contemporary Fiction examines how fiction since 1980 responds to changes to the composition of labor and of work itself. In particular, it is interested in the representation of service sector work in the novels of Stephanie Danler, Don DeLillo, Helen DeWitt, Mohsin Hamid, Jamaica Kincaid, Chang-rae Lee, Imbolo Mbue, Dinaw Mengestu, Bharati Mukherjee, Stewart O’Nan, and Merritt Tierce. The dissertation argues that these novelists develop aesthetic strategies to respond to issues including globalization, immaterial labor, entrepreneurial subjectivity, and financialization. Novels about domestic work register a push-pull dynamic of labor migration from the Global South and in doing so ascribe alternately too much or too little agency to domestic worker characters. The challenge of representing restaurant work leads to a strategy of formal and affective repetition to mimic the routine of interactive service. Novels critical of entrepreneurship either expose cliché as the underlying trope of innovation or reflect the failure of entrepreneurial discourse to account for workers at the bottom of the labor market. Although literary criticism about finance tends to insist on abstraction, reading financial novels for labor reveals the contradiction between that representation and reality. While the labor novel seems to have waned, the dissertation reconceives the genre by examining a range of formal responses to work in novels not often read together. Its analysis concludes that reading for labor not only reveals how fiction registers changes in political economy, but also revises our understanding of the contemporary novel more broadly.

The novels studied also provide insight into interdisciplinary debates about social and economic precarity since the mid-1970s. Often defined in terms of degraded work and the retrenchment of the welfare state, theorists emphasize a neoliberal restructuring of the economy as the cause of precarity. The dissertation argues instead that precarity is inherent in capitalist economies and its reemergence is symptomatic of prolonged economic stagnation. Taking seriously the etymological overtones of precarious—the dependence on the favor of another—it argues that the end of precarity requires not nostalgia for a previous arrangement of labor, but a challenge to the wage system itself.