Tags: Lanchester | money | Lewis | arts

Author Lanchester 'Speaking Money' at the Commonwealth Club

By    |   Friday, 14 Nov 2014 08:15 AM

New Yorker contributor John Lanchester appeared recently at the Commonwealth Club of California, "the place where you're in the know," to discuss his new book, How to Speak Money: What the Money People Say and What It Really Means, with Michael Lewis, whose classic Liar's Poker was re-released in a 25th anniversary edition.

Lewis' most recent book, Flash Boys, spawned several congressional hearings at which legislators indulged in the political theater skit of asking witnesses, "Are financial markets rigged?" The media stir surrounding the release of the book was a public relations triumph for Lewis.

Lewis pointed out that Lanchester is a writer first "who has drifted into the subject of money and done wonderful things with it." In addition to the current book, he has written about the financial crisis and the culture of finance in London. Lanchester, who grew up in Hong Kong, explained that he found London reshaped by the financial industry and wanted to write about how this happened, from a city "gray and provincial" compared with Hong Kong, where everything about the city was gray — the buildings, the sky, the food and the people. Upon his return he found the city revitalized by a boom in the financial industry. With this transformation came changes in the language that left him looking for explanations.

Asked whether he thought he was "slumming" it as a novelist by writing about money, Lanchester replied that writing novels is still his "day job," then quoted Tom Wolfe as saying that when novelists reach 40 they realize that 90 percent of their interest has to do with the subject.

He listed British novelists who had written about the world around them, then blamed Henry James for departing from that tradition by writing about Art and Literature (capitalization by Lanchester). He chided James for writing an 800-page novel about a family whose fortune was derived from enterprise but never revealed what line of business it was. Thereafter, critics would deduct points from novelists who wrote about interesting subjects.

Lanchester criticized the arts of the early 20th century for "turning away from the audience," but he found that the novel had inevitably turned back because "you can't have an abstract novel." (Perhaps he momentarily forgot about Marcel Proust's Swann's Way, which caused this writer to drop French literature in translation in favor of Russian, where the novels are far more rewarding.)

Lewis asked whether Lanchester was driven to investigate the world of money by some animosity, and the author responded that the source of animosity was a sense that a bubble was building in the financial markets. He saw potential for "dramatic irony," where the audience knows something the characters don't, which would have been the case if both of the panelists had their flies undone. In the event his insight was confirmed, but the crash "turned out to be something much bigger and scarier" than he had anticipated.

This writer would suggest that a similar circumstance exists in today's financial markets.

(Archived video can be found here.)

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Robert-Feinberg
New Yorker contributor John Lanchester appeared recently at the Commonwealth Club of California to discuss his new book, How to Speak Money: What the Money People Say and What It Really Means, with Michael Lewis, whose classic Liar's Poker was re-released in a 25th anniversary edition.
Lanchester, money, Lewis, arts
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2014-15-14
Friday, 14 Nov 2014 08:15 AM
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