'Office Politics': One Man's Work Is Another's Pleasure

Wilfrid Sheed gave depth and complexity to his misfit characters in
Wilfrid Sheed gave depth and complexity to his misfit characters in "Office Politics." (By Joseph Consentino -- Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc.)
Monday, June 20, 2005

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Nearly four decades ago, almost simultaneously with the publication of his quite wonderful novel "Office Politics," Wilfrid Sheed wrote a tart little essay called "The Minor Novelist." Drawn, obviously, from painful but instructive personal experience, it recounted the "ghastly charade" of irrational hope and inevitable disappointment that is the mid-list novelist's lot, including stupid and/or venomous reviews, lousy sales and persistent frustration. He wrote:

"These regular poundings have toughened him in all kinds of ways. The really hard pill to swallow, once after each book, is the knowledge that his works almost certainly will be out of print long before he dies. The first two are out of print already. To see a chipped copy in a second-hand bookstore is like visiting your own graveyard. Or, to put it another way, the people in the next apartment still haven't heard of him and neither has his daughter's high-school teacher."

That was 1966. As it turned out, in the next few years Sheed metamorphosed from minor novelist into literary lion. "Office Politics" was short-listed for (but didn't win) the National Book Award, his five subsequent works of fiction were well received and sold moderately well, he became one of the country's most prominent literary critics (and, it says here, the country's best), he served as a judge for the Book-of-the-Month Club when that still meant something, he published several engaging works of nonfiction, and he settled into what appears to be a pleasant semi-retirement in eastern Long Island and the Florida Keys with his wife, the splendid cookbook writer Miriam Ungerer.

So here it is 2005, Sheed is in his mid-seventies and, just as he predicted, "Office Politics" is out of print. It went through various paperback editions, the most recent of which was issued in 1989, but you'll find it now only in used-book stores and libraries. As Sheed well understood when he wrote "The Minor Novelist," the literary marketplace is a hard, unforgiving and often unjust place that is far more likely to reward the shoddy (viz., the bestseller lists) than the accomplished. Yet sometimes books find ways to outlive the neglect of publishers, booksellers and readers, and take on quiet lives of their own. One can only hope that in time this will happen to "Office Politics," the best of Sheed's novels and one that remains uncommonly fresh after all these years.

Sheed was in his mid-thirties when he wrote it, and already had a lot of experience upon which to draw. Born in London in 1930 (his father was the Sheed of Sheed & Ward, a notable British publishing house specializing in books about Catholicism, an occasional theme in Sheed's own work), he was brought to this country as a small boy and eventually contracted polio. By then he had become an ardent baseball fan, but the illness put him on the sidelines and forced him to develop his considerable intellectual resources. After finishing Oxford, he returned to the States and took up freelance reviewing (both books and movies) as well as writing novels. He got to know journalism, literary and otherwise, as well as the people who write it and the places that publish it.

That knowledge is the raw material from which "Office Politics" is drawn. Its singularly unheroic protagonist, George Wren, is "number-four editor" at a little magazine called the Outsider, based in shabby New York offices, that boasts "21,000 subscribers (it used to be 27,000), a small, nagging deficit, a reputation that shrank a little every time a subscriber died." It's "just another little magazine . . . staggering through life in an endless dribble of opinion," but -- ta-da! -- it "had once been endorsed by Adlai Stevenson and Madame Pandit Nehru" and George believes in it passionately, so much so that three months ago he took a pay cut from $13,000 (at CBS) to $7,500 just for the privilege of becoming a part of it.

Actually, put that in the past tense, because George is no longer sure there's much at the Outsider worth believing in. Its charismatic editor, a transplanted Brit named Gilbert Twining, has loads of facile charm and wields a keen editorial pen, but whether there's anything behind the charm is open to question. The rest of the magazine's tiny staff is a conglomeration of oddballs and misfits "hand-picked" by Twining, apparently "on some principle of interlocking incompatibility." One editor, Brian Fine, is "chubby and small" and, beneath a veneer of amiability, seethes with bitterness and frustrated ambition. Another, Fritz Tyler, is thin, supercilious and cynical. The accountant, Olga Marplate, longs to be a tyrannical efficiency expert, while the advertising man, Philo Sonnabend, wanders around in a fog of dotty incompetence.

Individually and collectively they are spineless -- if Twining raised an eyebrow in his direction, "Brian Fine would topple over like a doll with a round base" -- yet the office positively crackles with rivalry and intrigue. Brian invites George to lunch one day and lays out the alignment of forces -- the alignment, that is, as Brian chooses to see it -- in the course of which he says that Twining suffers from the "weakness of great men to keep their subordinates from growing." George is nonplussed. He thinks:

"Wait a minute, you're supposed to be on their side. Don't you understand the game? Olga and Philo and one editor against Twining and me and the office boy. George found that the game, as game, was getting a stronger grip on him. CBS politics had been played on too large a field, so you couldn't see the players at the far end. This stadium was just the right size."

So off they all go, conniving and conspiring and back-stabbing and all the other things that make life in the office -- any office -- so endlessly delightful and produce such delicious streams of office gossip. George tries to explain it to his wife: "Let's take an example: the office. A, let's say, wants to get rid of B. C agrees, but not on A's terms. They both approach D --" and when she interrupts with what he regards as quibbling objections, he insists that "the equation goes on all over town." Okay, he says, "just go down to any playground, and what do you find? A, B and C again. One leader, one whiner, one mischief-maker. . . . Sometimes there's a tricycle to fight about on the playground, and sometimes there's a nickel on the ground. But the jockeying of ego is the real story."

All of which is absolutely true, all of which is at the core of office life around the world, yet almost none of which crosses the radar of American "literary" novelists. If people work at all in literary American fiction, it's on university campuses or in writers' studies or in other circumstances that have nothing to do with the places where most ordinary Americans labor. Sheed is one of the lamentably few American writers who understand that the office is at least as much home for many of us as home itself, as a result of which the tiny little staff of literary/journalistic hacks at the Outsider becomes a metaphor -- a wholly convincing one -- for any office anywhere, maybe even yours.

Sheed can be a merciless satirist, and no one in "Office Politics" is let off the hook. If these people strike you as buffoons, well, mostly you're right. Yet it's a measure of the depth and complexity of Sheed's vision that they are also very human and, in their odd fashion, very sympathetic. It would be easy to dismiss Twining, for example, as "a dreadful little English boy, with a bagful of tricks" perfected at boarding school and brought across the Atlantic to awe gullible Americans, and indeed there's plenty of that in him, but there's also a man in his mid-fifties who's never recovered from wounds he suffered as a boy. He prowls around looking at pretty girls and fantasizing about them, but never follows through, for he would be a failure with them, "as he was with all women he knew 'personally' . . . or respected even a little bit."

In fact, as the novel winds its course, Twining emerges as one of the most complex, elusive and interesting characters of postwar American fiction. When he is sidelined by a heart attack while on the rubber-chicken circuit in California, the staff relishes the opportunity to take command of the magazine, but it develops that "the old boy was taking a lot of exorcising. For a man with a light manner, he made a heavy imprint." Twining "was a nine-parts mythic figure. He affected the office as an established old religion might -- seldom mentioned but always there, keeping new forms from emerging, conveying the message somehow: if I die, you die."

Twining comes back, of course, and puts on a show that at once dazzles and terrifies the staff. Some delicious business takes place with a rich widow named Harriet Wadsworth ("At 45, she should be growing up any day now"), "the magazine's backer-in-chief, owner of one-third of its largely worthless shares," whom Fritz Tyler is cynically using; even as he's in bed with her, he thinks of her as "this rich, lame-brained, overtrained, undereducated bitch," but she and Twining, as you'll see, have the last laugh. It's one of many in this very funny, very wise, unjustly neglected book.

"Office Politics" is out of print but available in libraries and used-book stores, and on Web sites.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address isyardleyj@washpost.com.

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