A New, Old Trend: ‘Assistant Lit’

March 17, 2007 | 4 books mentioned 5 2 min read

coverSkimming through the CS Monitor book section I came upon a capsule review describing Because She Can by Bridie Clark as the latest example of “assistant lit.” I assume that this trend hit the big time with the success of The Devil Wears Prada, and the subsequent movie version. But just as some see Jane Austen as a precursor to so-called “chick lit,” I wonder if “assistant lit” has some historical antecedents.

coverOne fairly obvious example that comes to mind is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, perhaps the ur-assitant lit, in which the sympathetic Bob Cratchit is put upon by his terrible boss Ebenezer Scrooge, who has become something of a model for penny-pinching bosses ever since. But in that case, the action focuses on the boss, and we don’t get much of Cratchit being forced to do Scrooge’s laundry.

coverAnother, much more recent example – which actually came out after Prada – might be Rick Moody’s ambitious novel The Diviners, which offers a bleak (and not altogether successful) take on the humiliating plight of the assistant, while also, more or less, attempting to chronicle the downfall of our vacuous, celebrity-obsessed civilization.

coverThen again, it might just be that the book that many consider to be the father of the novel, Don Quixote, also happens to be the very first example of “assistant lit.” Sancho Panza fits the bill as he is endlessly put upon by a boss who manages to both domineering and moronic. For those who have been assistants, as I once was, Don Quixote and his maddening whims will likely call up memories of capricious bosses.

But certainly there must be other examples of assistant lit that long predate the current trend, or like The Diviners turn it on its head. Can anyone think of some other good examples? Share in the comments.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. Which reminds me… I recently came upon the word "lickspittle" meaning "lacky" or "toady". Perhaps a little lower than "assistant" on the subordinate scale.

  2. Nice post about the context. I've recently read Because She Can for an upcoming review at LAist and also found parallels to the plot outline for Debra Ginsberg's Blind Submission, although I've not read it.

    This assistant lit construct has crossed over into Ugly Betty and the like…certainly not a new structure as you point out. Yet, it is now so prevalent I wonder when it will all become passe again. At least for a little while.

  3. I thought of Bartelby too, though I think Watson is a great example, constantly being belittled by his boss's gentle excoriations that what lies beyond his powers of deduction is, in fact, 'elementary'.

    Also, how about 'You' (someone vaguely resembling Michael J. Fox) of Bright Lights, Big City? You are a put-upon (and strung out) fact checker for a celebrated but unnamed NY magazine..

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