Wilfrid Sheed’s Office Politics Reconsidered

When I picked up Office Politics recently (the last time I read it was a hasty skim twenty five years ago), I had the vague notion that I might write about it because it had some relevance to the contemporary workplace. Work for many people has gotten a lot shittier in the last forty years, and the Work is Hell genre has correspondingly expanded, e.g., novels like Something Happened and Now We Come to the End and TV shows like The Office and movies like Office Space, Company Men and Horrible Bosses.

At first glance, Office Politics resembles many of the novels, shows and movies that reflect the worsening of the contemporary workplace: there is the same atmosphere of exhausted cynicism, dread and bad faith; the faux-genial manipulation; the heavy drinking; overeating; ulcers and other neurotic manifestations of people who toil in bureaucracies. There is also the disruption that comes to the office without warning. But the big difference is that the change comes from within and below, not as it does in our increasingly corporate workplace in which decision-making is often centralized to a remote location, from above and far away: it is the lower-echelon staff of the magazine, not a CEO based in another office or another country, that tries to shake things up.

The office in Office Politics (1966) is a drab, almost windowless collection of partitioned rooms somewhere on the east side of Manhattan. The walls are peeling, the furniture is falling apart, and the fire exit is blocked by a filing cabinet. The office belongs to a bimonthly liberal magazine called The Outsider, a ‘broken-down opinion machine’, circulation 21,000 and falling.

The Outsider is edited by the British expatriate Gilbert Twining, who, one of his underlings sourly notes, attended a finishing school where he “took the tripos in self-satisfaction, poise and the thrill of being me.” His ascendancy derives from his ability to intimidate his rebellious but easily cowed staff with his Englishness and his unerring instinct for their weak points. His raised eyebrow, we are told is ‘a beautiful piece of miniature engineering.’

Office Politics is about work, but it is also about something deeper than that: The decline of meaningful work. It is about how we can grow up and find a measure of happiness by becoming reconciled to our own ordinariness.

Most of us are-by definition-average. Average-looking people who shepherd their average talents with an average amount of determination to achieve an average amount of success. Yet few of us really think of ourselves this way, despite all evidence to the contrary. We are convinced that, if we only had the right opportunity, we would be rich, famous, coveted and admired.

The culture, not just the motivational industry but novels, movies, TV (especially reality TV), popular songs and Gospel of Success Christianity, encourages us to believe this, that we are exceptional, and deserving of recognition; that only if we believe in ourselves, and reach deep inside ourselves for the extraordinariness that is within, will we overcome the neighborhood tough, doubting parents, bullying boss, and win the wrestling tournament or debate or literary prize or chairmanship that we richly deserve.

To suggest that we are not capable of anything, that we are circumscribed in life by accidents of birth and the set of talents we are given is to fly in the face of the culture, but it is also to affirm something more long-standing. A little more than halfway through the novel, George, Twining’s protégé, who is in the habit of taking long walks in order to philosophize, stops near Grant’s Tomb, his feet ’aching voluptuously’, and has a revelation:

Humility and self-abnegation, all the Sunday school cant — nobody had ever bothered to tell him that they were really strategies of survival, that they might even keep you from blowing your brains out some day. The pain of self-discovery could not be borne, if you really cared; but if you had become nobody, you could take it. Or, at least, he hoped you could.

The passage, as offhand a statement of the pragmatism of Christian beliefs (‘’all the Sunday school cant’) as you might find, is one of the few references to religion in the novel. But like Flaubert’s definition of the writer’s presence in his own work, religion is nowhere and at the same time everywhere in the book.

Sheed, who died earlier this year, was described in many obituaries as a ‘Catholic writer’, a label he would not have minded. His father founded the top Catholic publishing house, Sheed and Ward, which published G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Day and others. Sheed biographied Clare Boothe Luce, one of the most famous high-profile Catholic converts in the first half of the 20th century. He wrote a novel, The Hack, about a writer of inspirational tracts for a Catholic publishing house. When Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh’s reactionary Catholic romance, was turned into a TV series and aired on PBS, Sheed was a regular on the post-show commentary. At the time of his death, the Anglo-American Sheed was one of the last significant intellectual products of the Catholic Revival that started in England in the 1840s, and peaked in America in the 1950s (its lone remaining giant is Garry Wills).

If most Catholic writers — Waugh, Eliot, Mauriac, Greene,et al — have one thing in common besides their faith, it is a dour view of human nature. Man needs God, their works tell us, because he is a pathetic, fallen creature. His efforts to raise himself above his pitiful status by making himself the center of his own world will always come to naught, because to worship oneself is to worship an idol.

There is nothing in Sheed’s fiction quite as dark as the moment in Waugh’s A Handful of Dust when Brenda Last inadvertently expresses her relief when she learns that it was her son John, not as she he first thought, her lover John, who has died in riding accident. But like Waugh’s characters, Sheed’s are almost uniformly vain, petty, inattentive and self-absorbed.

Twining is an empty suit — manipulative, conceited, dirty –minded. Fat, high-strung, grandiose Brian Fine is one of Sheed’s many sharp studies in self-delusion. The social-climbing socialist Fritz Tyler is, like Wilde’s definition of a cynic, someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. The girdle-wearing, tightly wound Olga Marplate is a hysterical miser. And so on.

As the interchangeability of the magazine’s content suggests, the individual talent, as Eliot called it, might be an illusion. The liberal political views the personalities espouse also prove to be based on very little of substance. Twining’s liberalism derives from nothing as much as dislike for a bullying ruling-class cousin. Fritz’s political beliefs come from a love of the excitement of demonstrations and picketing.

Reading Office Politics is also reminder that the post-war era in American intellectual life was, as David Brooks pointed out in Bobos in Paradise, characterized by relentless high mindedness and a love for abstraction. (About his own time at the Catholic Intellectual magazine Commonweal in the Fifties and Sixties, Sheed recalled, “Years could go by without a single first-person singular breaking into print, as if the Humility Police were intercepting these earthly vanities and pluralizing them all down to ciphers.”) Part of the rich comedy of Office Politics is the unbridgeable gulf between the lofty rhetoric the staff of The Outsider writes and publishes about the ‘Negro Problem and the ‘integrity of Allen Ginsberg’s vision’ and their own small-minded, entirely self-preoccupied mental worlds.

It finally occurs to George at the end of the novel that he might have nothing of interest to contribute. That, it seems, is the beginning of wisdom:

It didn’t really matter who edited the damn thing anyway, it always came out the same. At least he could get his poems in — or would he see them differently from his new vantage point? See them as what they probably were, the dying gasps of an overgrown boy…

A ‘capable middleweight’ was Martin Amis’s verdict on Wilfrid Sheed. That’s about right: Sheed is a talented minor writer. The difference between a good writer and a writer of genius, though, is sometimes a negative one: the writer of genius is more concerned with his own vision than the reader’s pleasure. “One could say of almost all works of literature that they are too long,” wrote Jules Renard, and his observation applies doubly to the inevitable longueurs in the work by the genius.

Norman Mailer on counterespionage or Ancient Egyptian sexual habits; David Foster Wallace on accounting or tennis; Jonathan Franzen on strip mining or pharmaceuticals; Faulkner on just about anything — what reader hasn’t skipped over large swaths of their writing in search of something that’s merely entertaining?

But part of Sheed’s humility as a writer, his minorness, is that he never forgets his duty to entertain and care for the reader’s patience. Office Politics is, like all of Sheed’s other novels, a medium-length work of fiction that deftly paints a small canvas, does its business efficiently, and is full of sharp, quotable phrases. Couldn’t that stand as the definition of a minor masterpiece?

— John Broening is a chef and writer based in Denver, Colorado. His work has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore City Paper, Gastronomica, Edible Front Range, and the Denver Post, for whom he writes a weekly column about food.

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