For our first teaser from KYD No.10, Gideon Haigh reflects on trials, tribulations and triumphs of his relationship with his recent book The Office.
If this teaser leaves you wanting more, you can find the full text of this essay and more on our website in the coming weeks. Or to instantly satisfy your urges, you can pre-order here.
This is a memoir about writing – about how deeply you can grow to detest it. From a purveyor of nonfiction, this might come as a surprise. It’s the novelists and the poets with the inner lives and the psychic wounds, right? We’re meant to pursue writing as an exercise of the rational intellect, except perhaps a permissible enthusiasm for our subjects. It’s partly such assumptions that compel my describing the emotional trajectory I took in compiling my latest book, The Office.
I can’t remember a blinding flash when I had ‘the idea’ for a history of offices, office work and office life. It seemed, rather, an idea I’d always had – a book I wanted to read that seemed unlikely to be written unless I did it myself. Quite simply, we are a world of office workers, and have become so in the space of roughly a century. How did a society that once grew and made things come to find meaning in lives with outcomes so apparently immaterial? It has sometimes seemed to me that we are most human at work, precisely when we are doing our best to hide it.
I finally grew serious about The Office four years ago, while I was working on a book called The Racket which examined, in quite granular detail, the corrupt and claustrophobic world of illegal abortion in Melbourne in the 1960s. After delving into a subject so intensely intimate, local and of its time, I was excited by the prospect of a new book so obviously panoramic, global and evolving. Much of the journalism I have done, in fact, has involved teasing out small stories to reveal their largeness – always engaging and exciting, but committing me essentially to the exploration of a broadly definable country of knowledge. The Office was a country with indistinct and porous borders, as well as a mysterious interior.
These are exquisite moments in a writer’s life – like the budding of a romance – when everything seems possible and nothing appears off-limits. But romance, of course, obscures practicalities. I had little idea how I would tackle the subject, what the book would look like, its tone, its length, its depth, its presentation, its market – things in which publishers are necessarily interested. Having always eschewed an agent, I was the salesman for The Office long before I was its researcher and writer, angling for an advance to sustain me for the three years I estimated the task would take.
Gideon Haigh is a journalist. The Office is his twenty-fifth book.