A few months ago, I was on a panel of literary magazine editors when an audience member asked the question, “Why is there no humor in literary writing?” This question resonated with me. There are numerous examples of great works that are humorous: Don Quixote, The Canterbury Tales, Orlando. Does the collective consciousness of our society consider literary work to be too serious? Perhaps we rely on television and movies to convey humor, that we overlook the joy of a funny book.
Reading Christine Sneed’s novel Please Be Advised: A Novel in Memos (7.13 Books), I was reminded that the humorous novel is alive and well. Told through a series of interoffice memorandums, it is a book about the absurdity of professional communication and the follies of American Capitalism. It was my pleasure to speak with Christine Sneed about capturing the everyday absurdity of office culture.
This interview was conducted over Zoom and edited for clarity.
Joshua Bohnsack: I'm interested in using the form of office memos as a vehicle for the narration, and the ways that you played within these constraints. Did you begin writing Please Be Advised by writing strictly in memos? Where did the concept of the memo format come from?
Christine Sneed: You know, I did start with the memo format, and I never had any plans to deviate from it, other than the appendices at the end of the book.
I knew I wanted to write in this form because I liked how self-contained it is. I used to teach business writing classes to undergraduates at DePaul and Loyola. The course was a requirement for their business degree, and so when I started writing Please Be Advised I had a lot of familiarity with the memo format.
In class, we went over what’s called a “sensitive memo,” also known as a “bad news” memo. II taught them how to write about “bad-news” situations, which would convey news likely to upset employees—e.g. a memo about a salary freeze, or a layoff. Basically, you had to figure out how to write about this unpleasant situation euphemistically.
I took this as my MO when writing Please Be Advised. My thought was, I'm writing these ridiculous stories, such as the “Stories of Personal Triumph”—some of which are outlandish, as in you would never tell people these things at work, unless you were expecting them to fire you, or else avoid you.
With some of the other memos more geared toward actual business practices, like those from President Bryan Stokerly, I wanted to upend the constraints and protocols that keep you from saying what you really think, and instead have my characters compulsively thought-broadcast. A lot of what these employees share in their memos is really odd and/or offensive. If this were a real office, you’d be thinking, What is wrong with these people? Why would they say this to 179 other people? It was so much fun to write in this way.
JB: I think it works really well for the employees being too comfortable, or being unsure. The reader can tell a lot about their character, and a lot about the narrative throughout the company. Whereas teaching business writing, it's like, “Here's the formula,” so you create the tone. And yet through that, you're able to create the tone of the characters and capture their voices. How did you go about differentiating, while working with all these characters?
CS: When I was working on these memos, and each of the characters was emerging one-by-one, (perhaps especially through the “Stories of Personal Triumph”), I made sure to give them all specific backstories and quirks. Ken Crickshaw, Jr, disgraced coroner and Quest Industries’ newly hired office manager, for example, kept acquiring more and more roles in the company. The implication I was hoping people understood was he was one of the only people in upper management who was actually competent. So he kept being given more and more jobs. And he also had so many hobbies. I thought exaggeration would be fun, because it's improbable that the office manager would also be the office coroner, and the wellness committee chair, and the Quest Industries probation officer. I gave him, ultimately, five or six different roles.
These choices were about ensuring each character had their own identity, like Hal Hanson, who was the guy everyone made fun of. (His “Story of Personal Triumph” is about being an extra in a movie and later, he goes to a bar where he ends up competing in (and losing) a drag queen competition.) I wanted each character to be believable, but also sort of improbable.
JB: I think that is definitely captured and still kept within that format. The memo form is something that risks becoming stale quickly, but using things like the “Stories of Personal Triumph,” the personal essays encouraged by HR as team-building, which fit into the corporate world, but they end up being way more ludicrous. I think these stories reveal a lot about your characters within the stories they choose to tell, as well as in their oversharing.
CS: That was the baseline aspect for each memo. I wanted them all to reveal things that were not at all flattering. But they didn't realize this, or else they didn't care. I wanted everyone to be highly inappropriate, but also endearing. I've worked in offices. I know from working with you on your stories [while you were in the MFA program at Northwestern] that you’ve had jobs in offices too. And when you worked as a bartender, you met a lot of different people. We're all human, of course, and we all have blind spots and prejudices, and we also all want love. So that was really part of the memo experience. The characters in PBA are all so needy. This is one quality I suspect readers can tell from reading only a few of the memos.
I described the book when I was querying publishers and agents that PBA is about the absurdity and the accidental sadness of office culture. The fact we have to spend so many of our waking hours with people we wouldn't choose to be with ordinarily, doing work we often don’t care about so we can pay our bills—this seems like a sad way to live our lives, but it's the system unfortunately we’ve been promulgating.
Now with the pandemic having changed the structure of the office, not everyone has to go into the office. It's better, but if we could choose how we spend our time, I doubt most people would say they want to do work for a corporation, unless they're getting paid extremely well, but most people are not. With the concentration of wealth being more and more at the top, a lot of people who work very hard are not making enough even to have a retirement fund. This is deeply depressing, and I wanted to write about it, while also showing how the whole experience makes a lot of us loopy.
JB: “The office” is conducive to having a story where the characters, contained in a space, wouldn't otherwise necessarily self-selectively be there. I've been reading a lot of office novels. Christian TeBordo had The Apology which came out recently, as well as The Employees by Danish writer, Olga Ravn, which takes place on a spaceship where some of the people are people, and some of them are humanoid robots, but they still complain about cleaning the deck. At the same time, I was reading Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt, which is another office novel, but it takes the absurdity to 10.
I think there's something about that where, reiterating what you said, it’s the sadness of having people spending their lives in this place where they don’t want to be. It creates these absurd tensions, out of boredom, or out of happenstance.
CS: We have to spend a lot of our waking hours trying to make enough money to feed ourselves and keep a roof over our heads. Most of us have been brainwashed into accepting this and not questioning it. Other societies are more supportive of the arts and value them a lot more than our society does. In the U.S., for a huge number of people, wealth is the only real value. Being rich is celebrated in the U.S.—without any sort of questioning why wealth matters so much more than anything else.
This is a major theme in the book. President Bryan Stokerly brags about how rich he is in all-employee emails; meanwhile, he's paying his accounting clerks $22,000 a year (which is what I was paid when I first got out of college and was working in a highway safety products company in the Loop). This was in the early nineties. I could barely live on that, but it was more money than I'd ever made, because I’d only had part-time jobs up until that point.
JB: I listened to the audiobook version of Please Be Advised, as well. I was surprised when reading your Substack that you had produced it yourself with the reading, recording, and the editing.
CS: I did! I recorded each of the memos and subsequently sent them off to a technician at Fiverr, who would put them into five memos per file. For distribution with Audible, if you have files that are either too short or too long, they will probably reject your book. So, I thought I should have files that were anywhere from ten to fifteen minutes long, with five memos in each. The Fiverr technician also checked to make sure the sound frequency met their parameters, because I had no idea how to do that. It was affordable. It was probably only about $120 to outsource that work.
I haven't made it up yet, because I've only sold about thirty copies so far. You just realize how impossible it is to sell books. You [Josh] know that from working at bookstores, and also being a publisher too.
JB: Since the pandemic, working as a publisher, I’ve been trying to get our books in bookstores. But nearly all of them respond with, “We don’t have the time or staff. We're still trying to figure things out,” so they don't even take books on consignment.
It’s different to be able to get your books to readers in those ways that people used to, physically, go and buy books, like based on recommendations or anything that requires that human connection.
CS: As always, you just have to take the long view. I'm generally able to keep going, because I'm working on a few things at the same time. I learned how to write for the screen, but have slowed down in the last year or two, because I realized it was even more difficult than publishing books, especially being the age I am now. If I were thirty-one instead of fifty-one, it would probably be easier to get in the door in Hollywood (but likely not that much easier).
Despite my gripes, there's nothing else I'd rather do with my life than be a writer–this always has to be the baseline. If someone asked me, Would you rather do something else? I know my answer is, No, I wouldn't.
I like teaching. That's fortunate. As you could probably tell from Please Be Advised, I would not have the temperament to work in the corporate offices. I grew to dislike my office jobs as much as I ended up disliking babysitting when I was a teenager. It’s mainly because I don't want to be around people who drive me crazy. That sounds unkind, probably, but I think many people feel that way. But most people have so much overhead they have no choice regarding working in an office or not. They're clinging to jobs they hate, which is also what most of the characters are doing in this book.
JB: Tonally, it's a shift from your work like your novel, Paris, He Said, where, it’s not that it is a book that lacks humor, but it's more subtle. Whereas this is, from the start, very funny.
CS: Thank you. This book was a huge amount of fine to write. At the risk of immodesty, my favorite “Story of Personal Triumph” in the book is the one with the at-home wisdom teeth extraction.
I know, however, that humor is incredibly subjective. People can agree on what's tragic–we all agree that a plane crash with innocent people dying: that's tragic. But we don't all think someone slipping on a banana peel is funny. I do. One of my roommates from college slipped on a banana peel one night when we were walking out the campus’s front gates. She looked down, and she had literally slipped on a banana peel. Thirty years ago, I still remember this moment. It was hilarious! I think it was a note from the universe: “Christine, this is what you should be writing. Try it. See what happens.” I would love to write another book like this one.