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Financial Literacy through Economic Narratives (August 2015): Contemporary Fictional Narratives

By Roark Mulligan

Contemporary Fictional Narratives

Since the end of World War II, economic novels and nonfiction narratives have proliferated.  Written by award-winning authors, former bankers, and journalists, these works range from postmodern experiments appealing to a limited audience to potboilers destined for lists of best sellers.  Ayn Rand, an author whose novels have increasingly influenced economic thought, exemplifies the degree to which contemporary narratives have served as vehicles for exploring economic principles.  In Atlas Shrugged and other works, Rand created dramatic plots that carry economic principles, resulting in novels that have influenced many, including neoliberal economists.  Less traditional postwar novelists, like their modernist predecessors, employ experimental methods to depict economic conditions and to question the dehumanizing effects of economic displacements.  But these postmodern writers go further, depicting monetary exchanges as forces that shape social realities.  For example, in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Kurt Vonnegut employs postmodern disruptions to question the ways in which financial success undermines human values.  First as a postwar realist then as a postmodern novelist, Philip Roth has repeatedly explored the excesses of a materialistic society; his most recent novel, American Pastoral, catalogs events that haunt a successful businessman.  Another author who has garnered critical praise while achieving commercial success, E. L. Doctorow experiments with historical fiction in novels such as Ragtime, a work that traces the history of a wealthy New York family.

Acclaimed postmodern novelist Don DeLillo has dramatized economic forces in such experimental novels as Underworld and Cosmopolis, revealing an economic system that propels individuals into unknown futures.  Known for experimental nonfiction works that pioneered New Journalism, Tom Wolfe has also written financial novels, among them The Bonfire of the Vanities, a work that explores racial, political, and class tensions.  As an author of postmodern narratives, Paul Auster raises economic questions in surprising ways.  For example, he sets the action of his novel In the Country of Last Things in a post-apocalyptic city where industry and technology have been destroyed and individuals scavenge for items to barter; in this dystopian future, language fails to represent the technological past.  Considered a tale of modern horror, Bret Ellis’s American Psycho satirizes a world of dehumanizing consumerism in which appearance is more important than human life.  And in his novel The Financial Lives of Poets, Jess Walter humorously depicts the American Dream gone horribly wrong when the protagonist, a journalist, quits his job to create a website giving financial advice through poetry.

The past forty years have seen the publication of a plethora of popular economic novels written by insiders and revealing the financial workings of Wall Street.  For example, Paul Erdman, the former president of a Swiss bank who spent time in jail awaiting trial for fraud, wrote a number of financial thrillers, starting with The Billion Dollar Sure Thing.  His accurate depictions of financial manipulations have been credited with helping track down money stolen from Holocaust victims.  Even the famous Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith entered the field as a novelist, with A Tenured Professor, a subject that he knew well.  Regan Ashbaugh, a former Wall Street broker, has written numerous crime novels, among them Downtick, and Stephen Frey, another former Wall Street financier, portrays the risks and dangers of high returns in novels such as Silent Partner.

During this period, creative nonfiction narratives have also become best sellers, entertaining as they educate.  This trend is best exemplified by the work of Michael Lewis.  His first book, a memoir titled Liar’s Poker, is an autobiographical account of the author’s tenure as a trader for Salomon Brothers during the 1980s.  In Money Ball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game and The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game (both adapted as films), Lewis explores the financial side of America’s two favorite sports: baseball and football.  In subsequent nonfiction narratives, such as The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Lewis exposes market failings in ways that have captured economic headlines.

Works Cited