Since the global financial system blew up in the autumn of 2008, the novelist and journalist John Lanchester has been one of the most reassuring and lucid guides to the baffling and often numbing idiolect spoken by the erstwhile “masters of the universe”. In a series of articles for the London Review of Books and then in his 2010 book about the crisis, Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay, Lanchester patiently explained (to those of us who thought we knew but were afraid to try to explain why—in public, at least) the difference between a CDS and the CPI, say, or between a “bull” market and a “bear”.
After an interlude during which he published Capital, a “Big Fat London Novel” (his own description) set in the recent past, Lanchester has returned to the topic of “speaking money”. His new book, How to Speak Money: What the money people say—and what they really mean, aims to bridge the gap between “the people who understand money and economics and the rest of us.” When I spoke to Lanchester recently, he told me he didn’t think that had gap had gone away, or even narrowed much, in the four years since the publication of Whoops!
JL: I vowed that I wasn’t going to speak about this stuff again, but I kept being asked to do things in this area. And then it occurred to me that every time I was asked to do something, it always had this common thread of explanation. That was what people seemed to feel was missing. There was a dark comedy element: it was almost always linked to a scandal or disaster—what is Libor? What is a forward-setting ETS? What is the gold spot price? I had a lot of knowledge that I didn’t know where to put, so I thought, “OK, I’ll have one more go at it.”