Suspend Your Disbelief

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In Protest of Dullness, or Why I'm Glad Our President Reads Novels

This nearly week-old David Brooks op-ed is infuriating for many reasons (such as its writer’s blatant scoffing at and outright denial of–despite the current economic disaster–the notion that to run a truly successful company or country, a leader should have the prescience to realize that the world around him or her is always changing, the ability to connect with and understand that world and the people in it, and the imagination and flexibility to adjust to that world’s advancements and its people’s diverse and changing needs), but in the name of this website and our shared passion for fiction, dear readers, I’ll just say I’m particularly offended by the implication that reading novels will make you a bad businessperson and leader.

According to Brooks (and his analysis of several studies about C.E.O.’s), the “greater psychological insight” and “feel for human relationships” that novels encourage in us are liabilities in leaders; he tells us that “[w]arm, flexible, team-oriented and empathetic people are less likely to thrive as C.E.O.’s. Organized, dogged, anal-retentive and slightly boring people are more likely to thrive…the best C.E.O.’s were not the flamboyant visionaries. They were humble, self-effacing, diligent and resolute souls who found one thing they were really good at and did it over and over again” and “All this work is a reminder that, while it’s important to be a sensitive, well-rounded person for the sake of your inner fulfillment, the market doesn’t really care. The market wants you to fill an organizational role.”

Um, since when does being sensitive or good with people stop at “inner fulfillment”? As you’ll see if you dare to stumble through this article, its logic doesn’t really add up. A “humble” person often *is* a good listener, one who isn’t “resolute” about doing the same thing over and over again. And where is this “flamboyant visionary” whose bane is empathy? [OK, maybe here. But Reverend Billy’s run for NYC mayor is much, much more about raising awareness for issues than it is about trying to actually win…he’s no wannabe C.E.O. And one of the most successful politician-C.E.O.s out there, Mayor Bloomberg himself, turns Brooks’ argument to stone again and again by advocating visionary (and if not flamboyant, certainly flamboyant-friendly) policies.]

Brooks gets especially affronted about the supposed evil moral influence the government (namely our warm-and-fuzzy, listening, novel-reading president) is having on businesses by, um, bailing them out — but where was all this indignation when big businesses were ruthlessly and illegally imposing their will on the government and the American people during Bush’s presidency? Some especially articulate refutations to this editorial are here and here.

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