A Labor We Will Never See

By Katie da Cunha LewinOctober 27, 2021

A Labor We Will Never See
EARLIER THIS YEAR, I taught Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis to groups of second-year English students. I was inspired by the conversations born from the text, covering such diverse areas as the family, the nonhuman, and ideas of care. But across all the groups I taught, we also talked a lot about work. We discussed how, in the immediate aftermath of his awakening to discover his body altered, Gregor Samsa finds himself still tired, and tries to go back to sleep. When he has difficulty getting comfortable in his bug body, he begins to decry a plethora of mundane stresses from his job as a traveling salesman. These did not seem to be the thoughts of a person who has undergone some mysterious supernatural change, but rather those that many of us have when our alarm goes off first thing in the morning and we must head off to our jobs. Tired, stressed, bored.

Written in 1912 and published in 1915, one of the few pieces of Kafka’s writing to be printed in his lifetime, the story of Gregor’s transformation is ubiquitous on syllabi as an example of the modernist theme of alienation. What Gregor turns into exactly differs between translations, as Kafka’s phrase “ungeheueren Ungeziefer” has a few potential meanings — “negations — virtual nonentities,” as Susan Bernofsky explains in a 2014 piece in The New Yorker. Her ultimate translation, in a 2014 edition published by Norton, is “some sort of monstrous insect,” while Michael Hofmann’s 2008 translation for Penguin Books has it as a “monstrous cockroach.” Kafka’s phrase deliberately plays on associations between insects and a lowly, servile life, a connection only heightened by the way he immediately couches Gregor’s responses to his new form in his dissatisfactions with his own work life. My students and I discussed how striking it was that Gregor seemed unsurprised, almost unperturbed, by the new state of affairs; perhaps, some students suggested, he had always been a bug, but on this day, his body finally caught up with his brain.

This story about the dehumanizing effects of unfulfilling work reflects the constraints of the author’s own working life. Kafka was not really a professional writer during his lifetime, and only managed to publish with the help and encouragement of his friend Max Brod and others. Trained in law, he worked for the Prague Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, eventually becoming its chief legal secretary. Kafka was of central importance to this organization, by all accounts a skillful writer of contracts and legal documents. Though his workday was devoted to textual composition, Kafka was preoccupied, almost obsessed, with the writing of fiction, which he would do at night. The Metamorphosis was written in that manner over a period of months between 1912 and 1913, but the ending was “ruined” because his writing was impeded by a work trip; Kafka lamented its quality several times, writing in January 1914: “Great antipathy to Metamorphosis. Unbearable ending.” Kafka’s lack of time, the disruptions caused by his work responsibilities, transformed the story we read today.

Kafka seems generally to have felt that office life would always be an interruption to any form of creativity. As he wrote to his confidante and fiancée Felice Bauer in June 1913: “Writing and office cannot be reconciled, since writing has its center of gravity in depth, whereas the office is on the surface of life. So it goes up and down, and one is bound to be torn asunder in the process.” Office work as surface, writing as depth: if we are always in the former mode, it is hard to descend into the creative deeps.

These two modes of being also expose differing experiences of time. In order to write, not only is the moment of creativity itself needed, but all the time that comes before it: preparation, reading, thinking, that slow squirming of ideas that form into a larger pattern. The possibility of work hangs, like a miasma, until at some point the urge to start writing takes over. But ideas have to sit and percolate; when our thoughts are preoccupied with mundane tasks, are prohibited to travel and wonder, to find little burrows and make connections, writing is all the more difficult, and sometimes impossible. The activity of writing is more than just the movement of fingers across a keyboard, it is a way of organizing time.

How do writers do it? “I will sell a book — this book — to buy myself time,” writes Eula Biss at the close of her 2020 book, Having and Being Had. “My time, already spent on writing, will pay for itself.” This is time spent, the words as hours and days that have already passed. The book is evidence of her labor, invested in writing, but it is also money, earned in selling. The entire project is knotted up in the problems of work, money, time, and creativity. As Biss takes stock of her current financial situation, she writes:

I never had a regular job until now. In my twenties I left job after job, working until I had enough money to write and then writing until I needed money again. […] Even the job I have now, my regular job, was temporary at first. I was an “artist in residence” and the contract required that I leave after four years. My residence was not permanent. But then the contract was revised, and revised again. When I could pass as permanent I bought a house.

The seesaw of her earlier working life was offset by her ability to make money from the creative work she felt compelled to do. Here, though, I am struck by what Biss does with her newfound security, gaining not just “a room of one’s own” but a whole house. The house appears often in the book, newly bought and waiting to be filled with objects that reflect her new purchasing power, her new class identity. It is the solid grounding that allows her comfort, both materially and psychically, in the face of a lifetime of temporary writing projects, a way of envisioning “ownership” of her own time.

Biss’s book is frustratingly sketchy, circling around important ideas without really landing on any kind of argument. She never unpacks what seems to me to be the central problem, the contemporary blind spot regarding writing and labor, especially our cultural reticence to talk about the connection between money and creativity. In many ways, the arrangements of earlier Western literary cultures, with their direct links between money and writing through systems of patronage, seem more honest. The finished work was often dedicated to the benefactor, thus signaling the success of their investment and potentially securing further investments in the future. The reverent tone of these dedications was born out of necessity, as if each superlative were a means of increasing future sums; these odd little sentences, which seem so much like decoration on the margins of the book, speak in the coded language of money.

In her explanatory notes to Having and Being Had, Biss writes of the rules she made for herself regarding her writing. One was that she always “had to name specific sums whenever I talked about money”; another was that “I had to talk about money.” Dave Eggers famously did that in the acknowledgment to his 2000 memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, where he lays out the total fee he was paid for the book ($100,000) and then lists various expenses — his agent’s fee, rent, “and food (consumed while ostensibly writing)” — leaving him with a modest sum that he promises to share in $5 chunks with readers who write to him with adequate proof of purchase. This acknowledgment, which makes a great show of its self-awareness, aims to transform Eggers’s clear discomfort about financially benefiting from his family traumas into a kind of joke, but his apparent intentions were undercut by his subsequent behavior. As an article in The New York Times published a year after the memoir appeared pointed out:

Despite public disavowals of making money from his work, Mr. Eggers has also made it clear that he does not much like sharing the proceeds. For example, he refused to pay his former literary agent, Elyse Cheney, a cut of the $2 million he got for the film rights to his book and recently settled a lawsuit she filed to collect it.

Regardless of Eggers’s faux self-consciousness, or Biss’s earnestness, neither writer’s apparent frankness about money deals with the underlying problem. To talk properly about money in relation to creative work seems to lead into territories neither is willing to enter.

I am interested in finding ways of imaging that labor that go beyond simply naming jobs or finding sources of funding, into realms that might demystify what it is we do and experience when we write, and how it is that our lives are shaped by our journeys into those depths that Kafka envisioned. Though the fact is obvious to the point of banality, each thing we read was written by someone, somewhere, most likely sitting alone, in a room paid for by some means that are seldom specified. Frank conversations about the material conditions that produced the writing do not detract from the text itself; indeed, often, as in the case of Kafka, they shed light on some of its preoccupations. Émile Zola wrote, in a book of essays published in 1880, that “[m]oney has emancipated the writer; money has created modern letters”; previous systems of patronage, Zola claimed, only kept writers servile, working for another kind of boss. I don’t think anyone would claim that money has the same emancipatory function today, but it is its own kind of measure of what we value, oftentimes revealing just how little worth the wider society places on creative effort.

Most pressingly, the problem of money not only exposes our inability to think about writing as work, where it begins and where it ends, but also how we think about the act of working itself. It may never have crossed our minds to ask how Kafka managed to produce a text like The Metamorphosis — it is hard to tether the words we read to the hands that made them — but its existence is evidence of a labor we will never be able to see.


Katie da Cunha Lewin is a writer and lecturer at Coventry University. This piece is part of a wider project about writing, labor, and creativity, which she is tackling in a book on the subject of the writing room. See more of her work on her website.

LARB Contributor

Katie da Cunha Lewin is a writer and lecturer in English at Coventry University. She is the co-editor of Don DeLillo: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, published by Bloomsbury in 2018. Her essays and reviews have been published widely. She is currently working on a book about writing rooms.


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