December 29, 2009
News & Opinion: In the Books - Off to the Printers IV
Odd Intersections: Fiction Captures the Complexities of Business
BY REBECCA SCHLEI HARTMAN Fiction allows us to immerse ourselves in different worlds, to escape and meet intriguing characters, and to look for clues and solve puzzles. We are a curious species; we find others’ experiences compelling, and we naturally look for ways to compare our stories to theirs. Business novelists know this about readers, and utilize the fiction medium to convey business lessons through an easily digestible story, fleshed out over the length of a book to offer readers the time and substance needed to invest in characters and follow a plot through to conclusion. Businessnovels.com describes the business novel as “a book-length fictional work where the characters and plot incorporate specific business related concepts and business experiences,” explaining that “[the] major intent of the author is to teach important business fundamentals while surrogating the reader’s business experience with a fictional one. The advantage is that real learning occurs, because books combine theory with emotion, therefore the student gains both theoretic knowledge and fictional experience they can substitute for their own.” Differing from fables and parables, which vacillate between lesson and application or analysis, business novels explore areas of commerce and the human networks that drive change in the world. And, as writer Kate Jennings pointed out in a 2001 strategy + business article, “novelists have served up treatments of businesspeople and commerce that are as varied, nuanced, and complex as they are in life, resulting in an engrossing, invigorating literary genre. Unfortunately, these days, with modern readers preferring the narrowly personal or entertainingly exotic, the business-novel genre has fallen on hard times, to the detriment of not just literature but all social discourse.” The business novel genre has had a tumultuous history. Business novel enthusiasts often cite Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier, Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral as classic business novels. Novels like The Great Gatsby and Confederacy of Dunces are still staples in education and are used to teach basic business principles like the destructiveness of greed, success through unwavering determination, and the triumph of the American work ethic. Today, though, modern attempts at the business novel are most often integrated into the general fiction section, only to be picked up by those oddball readers who, ostensibly, exchange quality literature for simplistic renderings of the exact situations other readers hope to escape from by reading fiction. We challenge readers to look beyond the seemingly odd intersection of business thought and fiction to the potential of stories to facilitate understanding while capturing both the reader’s intellect and imagination. Some set out to encapsulate the complexities of business concepts, like Paul Goldstein’s fast-paced legal thriller about the politics of the biotech industry, A Patent Lie (sequel to Errors and Omissions), and others simply point out the everyday absurdities of work life, like Dan Kennedy’s hilarious glimpse into the music industry, Rock On, and McSweeney’s writer Ed Park’s perhaps too poignant Personal Days, which follows a once lively group of coworkers as they weather the increasing uncertainty of their job security. In a June 2008 New York Times book review of Personal Days, in which he also highlights the 2007 novel Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, writer Mark Sarvas suggests that, “considering the ubiquity of the work experience in American lives, and the thousands upon thousands of novels published annually, perhaps the question shouldn’t be why there are two work-related novels right now but why there aren’t many more.” You may pick up a business novel to enjoy a good story, or you may look to it for guidance on a particular problem or solution. Either way, business novels provide an unconventional look into the issues we face each day. While perhaps not appropriate for all change initiatives, business novels could, on a personal or small-group level, be an even more effective tool in grasping the essence of an idea than a journal article or typical non-fiction business book.