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Planet Money / Economic fact in literary fiction | Planet Money

Economic fact in literary fiction | Planet Money

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In this episode of “Planet Money,” the hosts explore how economics is portrayed in literary fiction. They interview three novelists who have incorporated economic concepts into their books and discuss the ways in which fiction can provide unique insights into economic questions. From intergenerational epics to shipping industry intrigue, these authors shed light on the intersection of economics and storytelling.

Main Takeaways

Novelists as Secret Economists

  • Novelist Minjin Lee’s books are about economics, because she wanted to be an economist.
  • Understanding people’s motivation behind their decisions is at the core of what fiction writers do.
  • Money is right at the center of so much of what we do and can reveal a lot about whoever’s holding it.
  • The economic concept of revealed preference states that people reveal what they actually want with their money.
  • Some novelists are secretly economists, with books suddenly about economics or financial markets.

Minjin Lee’s “Pachinko”

  • Minjin Lee’s book, Pachinko, is an intergenerational epic that follows a Korean family that immigrates to Japan in the 1900s.
  • Lee’s book captures the emotional minutia of family life, but also the huge sweep of economic history, how industry and job opportunities changed over decades.
  • Lee’s process for keeping readers engrossed in the world she’s building is to get every little detail right, to be accurate.
  • Lee finds her sources wherever she can, talking to people, reporting things out, and researching.
  • Pachinko, a gambling game, played a significant role in the lives of Korean immigrants in Japan.
  • Pachinko is a metaphor for the rigged and unfair economic situation in Japan.
  • The labor market is more like Pachinko than a meritocracy.
  • We need to adapt to changing economic situations and pick the best possible path.

Emily St. John Mandel and the Shipping Industry

  • Emily St. John Mendel is a best-selling author of sci-fi e-books.
  • Her books have shipping characters and plots, which she finds fascinating.
  • Emily fell in love with shipping after reading an article about the “ghost fleet” during the recession.
  • Shipping companies parked empty ships offshore with skeleton crews due to low consumer demand.
  • Emily binge-read about shipping on an industry website and was intrigued by the clinical way the industry talks about dramatic events like piracy.
  • Novelist Emily St. John Mandel finds inspiration in shipping and builds characters who work in the industry.
  • Mandel’s writing adds a poetic sense of wonder to the logistical processes described in shipping trade magazines.
  • Mandel’s writing describes shipping as “this giant engine of revealed preference” that is the manifestation of the aggregate desires of the whole world.

Hernan Diaz and Finance

  • Novelist Hernan Diaz demystifies money and finance in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Trust”.
  • Diaz takes issue with the opaque and confusing language used in the financial world and aims to strip away its viscous, dense quality through his writing.
  • Diaz discovers a lack of novels about the inner workings of capital and decides to corner that market.
  • He reads primary sources like documents, papers, and journals to inform his writing.
  • Diaz finds a pivotal moment in the 1932 Congressional hearings after the 1929 Stock Market Crash and learns about the power of financial language over political language.
  • The idea that language is a demonstration of power becomes a central conceit in Diaz’s book Trust.
  • Diaz discovers that economics is less objective and concrete than it projects, and that economists can use math to shore up their power.
  • Diaz’s relationship with finance changed through writing Trust and he was able to understand financial concepts better.
  • Writing Trust changed Diaz’s relationship with finance.
  • Diaz spent five years researching and writing Trust.
  • Diaz now has a better understanding of finance.
  • Diaz believes there is a blueprint for gaining financial literacy.


The Intersection of Economics and Fiction

Novelist Minjin Lee, author of Pachinko, and other authors explore the ways in which economics can be woven into the fabric of fiction. Understanding people’s motivations behind their decisions is central to fiction writing, and money often plays a central role in these motivations. The concept of revealed preference, where people reveal their true desires through their spending, provides a lens through which novelists can explore economic questions. Lee’s Pachinko captures the intergenerational struggles of a Korean family in Japan, highlighting the economic history and challenges faced by immigrants. Emily St. John Mandel finds inspiration in the shipping industry, using it as a metaphor for the aggregate desires of the world. Hernan Diaz delves into the world of finance, aiming to demystify its language and power dynamics through his writing.

Exploring Economic Concepts Through Fiction

Fiction allows for a broad reach and a unique exploration of economic questions. Through accurate research and attention to detail, novelists like Minjin Lee create immersive worlds that captivate readers while shedding light on economic history. Emily St. John Mandel’s fascination with the shipping industry adds a sense of wonder to the logistical processes that drive global trade. Hernan Diaz’s novel Trust challenges the opaque language of finance, aiming to make it more accessible and comprehensible to readers. By incorporating economic concepts into their storytelling, these authors provide a fresh perspective on the intersection of economics and everyday life.


The marriage of economics and fiction offers a powerful lens through which to explore complex economic questions. Novelists like Minjin Lee, Emily St. John Mandel, and Hernan Diaz bring economic concepts to life through their storytelling, providing readers with new insights and perspectives. By delving into the emotional and historical aspects of economics, these authors create narratives that resonate and engage audiences in a unique way. Through their books, they invite readers to consider the economic forces that shape our lives and challenge our understanding of the world.

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