Recently, I made a zine titled To All The Shit Jobs I've Worked Before, a cheeky nod to a TV show of a similar name. The zine is literally an ode to my entire working life, a seventeen-year hodgepodge of largely low-level—or so-called ‘unskilled’—jobs I've held since the age of fifteen.
I’ve never completed any kind of tertiary education. Throw in a dash of poor mental health and a working-class family who were too preoccupied and unhappy to care about what I ‘became’, and I’ve ended up with no real qualifications. Finally, nurtured by my fervent involvement in the punk underground (which nonetheless provided a fulfilling life), I ended up neglecting to pursue mainstream ‘goals’. In other words, I don’t have what people traditionally call a ‘career path’. Maybe some people will say that I've squandered my time. Regardless, it's been shit job after shit job, means-to-an-end after means-to-an-end, in the hopes of gaining a new skill or landing that one job that will be the most tolerable of shit jobs, at least until the day I die.
In environments where eking out a shit living is par for the course, conditions are generally miserable. Workers are unhappy, unconcerned and/or mean spirited. Sometimes, you luck out and there are formal niceties, or you end up going for drinks at the local after work, but ultimately it's palpable that no one gives a shit. Yet we're all there for the same reasons: to make ends meet.
This bleak reality is the backdrop of Heike Geissler's novel Seasonal Associate, published in German in 2014 and newly translated into English by Katy Derbyshire. Forced by increasing debt and a precarious financial situation, as well as needing to support her two young sons, the unnamed protagonist (who is loosely based on Geissler herself) takes up a temporary, low-level position at an Amazon warehouse in Leipzig during the busy pre-Christmas rush. It's the “first job that comes up”, and the underemployed writer and translator has to take it, “to put some money in the bank”. When desperate times call for desperate measures, there's no time for hesitation. Time is money.
Presented as a combination of memoir and theory, Seasonal Associate uses second-person to fold the reader into the text. Its tone is at once accusatory and inviting – on one hand, the ‘you’ is universal, yet lines like “You walk around, go for a stroll, allow yourself the pleasure” presents a certain snideness. Geissler uses first-person occasionally however, and when she does, it is unexpected and jolts the reader back into their own present, a device that lays the groundwork for a recurring pathos. The first time she does this, it is to refer to her boyfriend and children: “I’m not going to share them. I can’t do that. You’re me, but you don’t have my entire life.”
The working conditions at Amazon turn out to be unrelentingly dismal, and Geissler manages to wring out every detail. Even so, nothing of consequence actually happens in the book; rather than a plot filled with twists and turns, it’s a composite of the non-events that make up the protagonist’s time at the warehouse, and the thoughts that occur to her during this tedious passage of time. As such, unless you're a trust-fund kid or someone who's miraculously escaped the mechanisms of the unskilled labour market, you're bound to have worked at least one shit job in your life to date, and this makes the contents of Seasonal Associate either terrifyingly relatable (because you're still there) or downright terrifying (because you don’t want to go back there). She calculates over and over how much money she'll make, worries about taking sick leave, and then worries some more about being thought to lie about being sick in order to take sick leave. She eats quickly at lunch break, cleans up her workstation fifteen minutes ahead of clock-off to avoid working unpaid minutes, and makes mistakes she doesn't bother correcting. Every day is routine.
Geissler didn't set out to write about her time working for Amazon. But in an interview with The Creative Independent, she said that it was when her contract ended that she started thinking about writing about her experiences, “because I had not earned enough money [at Amazon], really.”
And there is the sucker punch. As Geissler’s protagonist laments early on in the novel:
You’ll learn to say, however, that you just need the money, that you have this job but you’re still a writer and translator. […] At some point you’ll find it easy to cast all your strange ideals of careers and life and success overboard, to say that you have this job, your actual job, and another one on the side. […] You’ll be constantly thinking about what ideas everyone has about making a living, why it sometimes feels like failure when you can’t live off your actual job.
For many artists in similarly dire socioeconomic circumstances, this is a dilemma that will sound very familiar. If I write about my hardships, maybe I will eventually catch the attention of someone who will give me more opportunities. Maybe I can then finally ‘make it’ as a writer. Seasonal Associate launched Geissler’s career as a literary writer, but the dismal working conditions and financial precarity that produced it undoubtedly took a psychological toll. As Amy Gray writes in an Overland op-ed on what she terms “the Bustle hustle”—the hyper-mining of personal experiences in writing, particularly in digital writing—“it's compelling for writers, especially those who want to break into publishing, and who haven't been able to enter the industry either due to circumstance or various layers of structural prejudice.”
At its very core, Seasonal Associate is a writer-labourer's book. While drolly interrogating today's burgeoning complexities around class and capital, Geissler queries what it means to work a shit job that has absolutely nothing to do with the art you make (in Geissler’s case, pre-Seasonal Associate) in order to—ironically—fund it, once you’ve covered the many important living costs which naturally take priority. At one point, while she wonders what her “mental bed” will look like at the end of her Amazon contract, she refers to Tracey Emin's notorious 1998 installation My Bed. The art work, the artist's bed with objects strewn haphazardly around it, acts as a simulation of the abject state someone's bedroom would look like if they were going through depression. Geissler cynically notes that her bed “won't be sold at Christie's for €2.5 million like Tracey Emin's bed; you'll have to clean it up yourself later.”
Like a skittish servant, this linking of money with artistic success hovers in the background of the book. Within the creative industries, a false winner-takes-all meritocracy is often dangled from the ceiling like a pleasurable daydream: what if, as a labourer in the marketplace of the arts, I'm The One the system chooses for success? After all, Octavia Butler and Stephen King fucking made it against all odds. ‘Supporting yourself completely doing what you love? Congratulations, you've worked hard enough and made it!’ vs: ‘Pulling long hours at a non-creative day job and trying to make art in your spare time? You pitiful thing, but it's very admirable what you're doing!’ There's no middle ground, and two opposing ideas seem to exist in harmony: a good struggle makes good work, yet the most envied of all artists are the ones who manage to receive grant after grant, or those who are supported by external financial sources, like family or a partner. There remain no crumbs left. Back to the drawing board. Struggle. Envy. Win. Quit.
And as the class gap between the haves and the have-nots in the creative industries widens, the farce is that labourers will have less and less conviction or confidence to pursue writing, especially if it looks like a vocation that is only sustainable for those with existing advantages. Books by privileged writers typically end up being the ones that get published, leading to a dearth of varied stories that, from the margins, make ‘the writerly life’ seem like an attainable goal, or one worth pursuing. As Roanna Gonsalves writes in an essay on the ‘double lives’ many marginalised writers often have to negotiate, “the aspiration of writers towards the perceived ‘sacredness’ of the creative process must be tempered with the ‘profane’ spectre of the need to earn a living.”
Due to the romanticisation of poverty within the creative industries, it is hard to tell who else comes from circumstances like mine. Who has access to an inheritance? Whose parents help pay their rent? Who is able to call their family members to help them out should they get into a financial rut? Nobody knows. If I'm wearing a t-shirt with holes in it, maybe I'm just being quirky. If I'm wearing a nice dress, maybe I bought it from an op-shop. If I'm buying a nice drink at someone's book launch, I'm either using my credit card and putting myself further in debt, or I have a cushy public servant job that gives me the nice life. Who can say? It is there, of course, in the difference between choosing to work in an undervalued arts industry and whining about $30,000 (or less) a year, and feeling $30,000 is actually a fair bit of money. But if everyone is ‘poor’ and ‘broke’, then no one is poor and broke.
When Geissler sees a book by an industry peer she recognises, on the Amazon conveyor belt as pre-ordered gifts waiting to be packed by her, she considers this disparity. “It was as if I were the chambermaid and he were the guest, […] as if we were showing our true faces,” she writes bitterly. “I bet he has time right now to think about his next work; it would have to be called a work, and he'd have to be called a successful writer.”
In the five years since I started my haphazard journey as a freelance writer, I have always worked non-arts jobs in order to support myself. Currently, I work within the gig economy: cleaning houses and engaging in business copy-writing to pay the bills, on top of other casual miscellaneous jobs, a sacrifice I decided to make to try and pursue this funny business that appears to reap little reward, but which undeniably keeps me existentially alive. Sometimes, I think about the fact that if I had stayed in my minimum-wage commis chef jobs and abandoned writing, I might have been promoted to a sous chef position by now. By no means glamorous either, but at least a source of income that would not rest on persistent precarity.
In the course of writing this review, I spoke to two writers who I know also explicitly identify as working-class. One of them, Peter Polites, echoed the difficult negotiation that often arises from this sacrifice:
For those of us who write and aren't trustafarians, there is a risk of pursuing literature creation – because it comes at a cost, the cost being the use of your mind, time and resources and that have been used to create a more stable financial future.
And while capitalism continues to thrive, alienation is the order of the day as not only are people pitted against one another, they are made to feel as if they are the only ones alone in their experiences. I didn't think anyone understood my position until I spoke to Stephen Pham, another working-class writer who emphasised the isolation he feels in a system that treats class as a single, isolated issue, and not one tied deeply to other markers such as race:
It's isolating. I bump up against white writers who treat poverty as a marker of authenticity, writers of colour who are privileged enough to not care about class, and a community of tertiary-educated Asian-Australians who don't read all that much but think being poor is for suckers.
When class is divorced from the other situational and statistical factors that inherently drive it, the conversation stalls. To use myself as an example, despite having no generational wealth or safety net, I'm privileged in that I'm able-bodied, and don't have any dependants. And while I'm a first-generation migrant of colour, English is my first language, and I don't have a discernible ‘foreign’ accent. Even as I write this, I feel a deep sense of shame: both from admitting my circumstances, as well as from feeling as if I am performing the working-class cosplay that many in the arts fetishise. Perhaps that's why I don't hear of many writers who talk openly about existing within similar class brackets; there exists both shame, and the underlying aspiration to leave it. Or, as Eda Gunaydin writes in her essay on gentrification in Sydney's Parramatta:
I think it is more important not to impute bootstrapping narratives onto the stories of people like myself or others fighting worse structural oppressions, who make writing or the arts work by cleaning toilets or mixing drinks: we represent overwhelming exceptions to the general rule that 'one cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.' Possession of the means to write is strong evidence of, on average, a not-quite-proletarian status.
In Seasonal Associate, Geissler implicitly acknowledges this schism. When she points out mistakes her co-workers have made, they call her “Little Miss Professor”. She argues with and blatantly questions her superiors. When she orders food at a cafe and the waiter says “happy to serve you”, she taunts him by laughing and turning it into a question. When she sits next to a homeless man on the tram who tries to start a conversation with her, she barely wants to acknowledge him and thinks about her stopover at the bank instead. She puzzles over why a new co-worker has travelled from the next town to work at the warehouse. And despite being in debt, she still has “purchasing power” to afford a new pair of boots, bank overdraft be damned.
How much of class consciousness is class aspiration? Even if talking about class is awkward, its very existence points to a kind of signalling—“I'm poor, pity me” vs. “I'm rich, envy me”—variations on a scale that’s always about desiring and striving towards something. Within a capitalist system, as Guy Debord writes in the ever-relevant Society of the Spectacle, “every given commodity fights for itself, cannot acknowledge the others, and attempts to impose itself everywhere as if it were the only one.”
Of course, as capitalism finds new ways to remake its own image, working-class writers today are a lot more varied than the down-and-out Dickens or Orwell sitting in their dank flats, even if they later wrangled a more-than-comfortable existence for themselves from their craft. But it's a tension that will keep plaguing the arts as long as these internal contradictions aren't addressed, especially in spaces that are at once gatekept, looked at, and attended to by the middle- and upper-classes. Who wants to be Xu Lizhi when they can be J.K. Rowling?
Seasonal Associate, in its form as a subjective account of precarious labour, lays out these uncomfortable truths in a time where many people are exhausted and disheartened by work that discourages solidarity. In a casualised economy rife with alienation, ‘hard work’ and ‘success’ become gifts to be won by those who most effectively manage to game the system, a trial-and-error roulette that rests on external factors completely unrelated to the myths that drive it. Like Geissler’s protagonist, I want my bosses to hear that I'm sweeping with intent outside their office, only to find out that it no longer matters whether I've finished sweeping or not. In the same scene, her team leader calls her to stop and return to her workstation. He doesn't even check, doesn't even ask how far she's got.
Cher Tan is an essayist and critic in Birraranga/Melbourne, via Kaurna Yerta/Adelaide and Singapore. Her work has appeared in Meanjin, Westerly, Swampland and Overland, among others. She is Kill Your Darlings’ 2019 New Critic and a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow.