The serious business of fiction

When one of my favourite writers, Kazuo Ishiguro, won the Nobel Prize for Literature earlier this month, I was reminded of the two worlds I inhabit: business and writing. In part this is because two of Ishiguro’s novels, Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, each juxtapose at least two worlds, with breathtaking emotional effect and power.

In Remains of the Day, it’s the repressed inner emotional world of the butler Stevens – we never learn his first name – a world which Stevens chronicles with great beauty while refusing to acknowledge his own needs, and the outer shadowy world of European diplomacy between the two world wars, which Stevens dutifully serves while refusing to consider the implications.

And in Never Let me Go, it’s the familiar world of the British boarding school uneasily co-existing with the very dark world of sci-fi dystopia. Ironically the British boarding school atmosphere is familiar to most of us only through books and movies because most of us haven’t attended one. Never Let Me Go also functions as a fable about what it means to be human, to pass from childhood innocence to adulthood and come to terms with our own mortality. Both novels also explore themes of duty and responsibility.

If you haven’t read the books, I recommend doing so. And seeing the movies doesn’t quite count, not only because John Le Carré, another of my favourite writers, once said, “Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.” The books are better for many reasons, including their example of how simple language can be wielded to stunning effect.

I sometimes feel I inhabit two worlds: business, where I work in corporate communications, and fiction, which I write. This is not only because almost none of my writer friends work in business and almost none of my business friends write novels. And it’s not primarily due to the left-brain/right brain dichotomy inherent in the two activities, although I’d argue corporate communications is far closer to being an art than a science.

I think the tension I sometimes feel at the intersection of these two worlds has to do with a lack of mutual understanding of each by the other because there’s often little overlap between them. And when there is overlap, it’s often uninformed.

Novelists bear at least half the responsibility for the fraught nature of this relationship. Most writers see business – and portray it this way in their work – as at best oppressive and anti-creative, and at worst as a example of capitalism gone astray or even amok in the overriding a pursuit of profit. Think The Great Gatsby (criminal, specious); The Bonfire of the Vanities (arrogant, greedy); and even Jurassic Park (hubristic, greedy).

Business is probably only treated worse by Hollywood where it is often cast as the villain. One need only to look to The LEGO Movie and the character of Lord Business but other examples abound. Even Le Carré, many of whose books have been made into movies, turned to businesspeople as the new baddies as the Cold War waned. Very few writers have experienced business and its practitioners as a humanistic art, as described by business thinkers like Peter Drucker or Clayton Christensen.

In Christensen’s wonderful essay “How Will You Measure Your Life” in the HBR anthology of essays called On Managing Yourself Christensen writes about the powerful effect that managers have on people’s lives. Because we spend so much time at work, our experience there influences our attitudes and relationships outside of work, with family and friends and ourselves. If managers do their jobs well, and show appreciation to people and help them realize their potential and achieve a deep sense of purpose, this can have a powerful positive effect on whole lives.

Businesspeople, for their part, tend to see writers of made-up stories as maybe a little too fanciful, subjective, and impractical for the hard evidence-based and active practice of management, perhaps too introspective for the extroverted work of leading and decision-making.

There is sometimes a sense among businesspeople that fiction is meant for amusement whereas non-fiction is where you go for learning. This view is apparently informed by gender where anyone in the publishing industry will tell you that women comprise about 80 percent of fiction readers. Men generally read less fiction, and based on anecdotal evidence this is because they believe they can learn something from non-fiction, unlike from made-up stories.

Yet this gap between business and fiction shouldn’t be as wide as it might appear. Business books have been making increasing use of narrative techniques, stories, anecdotes, and fables,giving rise to a whole new sub-genre called management fiction. Perhaps the most famous example is Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal With Change In Your Work and In Your Life by Dr. Spencer Johnson. It’s a story about two mice and two people. Another is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Fable by Patrick Lencioni.

And one of the most influential ways of teaching business to university students, the case studies pioneered by Harvard Business School in 1912 and used by Ivey Business School, make heavy use of narrative and creative writing techniques: character, suspense, conflict, and resolution.

My father-in-law Peter Eadie, atransportation executive, has always been an avid reader of business books and biographies. After reading a novel he enjoyed, he’s added fiction to his reading list. He enjoys the originality of each book, the way novelists construct their stories to keep readers interested and wanting to know what comes next. This is the power of narrative.

When I work with senior executives on their speeches, we try to build them around stories. This is because stories are more easily understood than a list of facts or arguments and are more memorable. In his wonderful book The Seven Basic Plots,which analyses the core elements of stories throughout time and place, Christopher Booker argues that making sense of stories is hardwired into our brains: it’s how we see and understand the world.

In communicating the importance of employee safety, essential in many industries, the trend is moving away from citing statistics and toward telling stories. One imaginative “fictional” technique in continuously improving safety culture and performance is called anticipated regret. After an accident or a “near miss” where something terrible could have happened but didn’t, employees are asked to imagine what it would be like if the worst had actually happened: howit would look, feel, and sound.

Companies often refer to narratives, but a true narrative needs to be about more than an argument for why a company is on the right track. To be powerful, a corporate narrative should be about people confronting a challenging set of obstacles, and striving mightily to overcome them for the greater good of society.

Helping companies tell their stories is becoming a business in its own right. My friend the novelist Todd Babiak co-founded a company called Story Engine to help organizations tell their stories.

And my friend and colleague Niel Golightly has written on the topic of why businesspeople should read fiction. In Read to Lead: 7 reasons why literature can make you a better executive Niel explores several benefits of fiction, including developing one’s strengths in strategy, ethics, resilience, and empathy.

There are many core competencies involved in being a businessperson in general and a corporate communications personal in particular. For the latter, writing, speaking, and strategic planning come to mind. But I’ve always felt that the cornerstone of my profession was empathy. How can you hope to communicate with others if you don’t have a good sense of what other people are thinking and, more importantly, feeling?

According to a study written up in Scientific American under the headline of “Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy”, reading literary fiction improves the ability to “infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions.”

It’s an important quality in communications and in business generally, useful when dealing with customers, colleagues, business partners, and community members.

If empathy is a right brain activity, logical thinking is very definitely left-brain, and here literature can play a role as well. I’m reminded of some comments Matthew Barrett, former CEO of the Bank of Montreal, made in his “exit interview” with legendary business columnist Gordon Pitts, words that should be emblazoned over the doors to university arts faculties everywhere:

In an interview with The Globe and Mail published under the headline “His story is still being written,” Mr. Barrett said, “I used to joke that if you can find me someone who has a degree in figuring out patterns of imagery in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, I can teach him to break down a balance sheet in 30 minutes. What you want is a mind. A liberal arts education is extremely valuable for someone coming into business because increasingly business is about context as well as about the technical aspects. You can teach the craft skills of business.”

As for the perception that one can only learn from non-fiction, I learned and remembered more about the essence of Latin American history from Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude than I did from several of the university classes I took in Latin American politics and history. People can learn about science from The Martian by Andy Weir. It’s a literary cliché but you can even learn about fishing from Hemingway.

In the early 1970s yet another Nobel Laureate in Literature, Saul Bellow, wrote the essay “Culture Now” in which he attempted to define the role of the artist: “This society, like ancient Rome, is an amusement society. Art cannot and should not compete with amusement. It has business at the heart of humanity. The artist, as Collingwood tells us, must be a prophet, ‘not in the sense that he foretells things to come, but that he tells the audience, at the risk of their displeasure, the secrets of their own hearts.’ That is why he exists. He is a spokesperson for his community.”

That last sentence highlights a potential connection between my two worlds, between the responsibilities of the corporate communications person and the writer. And reminds us that fiction is serious business.

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