Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I'd like to start by asking why you chose to write Exploring Capitalist Fiction. Was there a void you were seeking to fill?
The origins of this book go back to the Spring of 1992 when I began teaching a course called Business Through Literature in Wheeling Jesuit University's MBA program. Exploring Capitalist Fiction is heavily based on my lectures and notes on the novels, plays, and films used in this popular course over the years and on what I have learned from my students in class discussions and in their papers.
The idea to write this book originated a few years ago when one of Wheeling Jesuit University's MBA graduates, who had taken and enjoyed the Business Through Literature course, proposed that I write a book based on the novels, plays, and films covered in that course. I agreed as I concluded that the subject matter was important and bookworthy and that the book would be fun for me to write and for others to read. I went on to select twenty-five works to include in the book out of the more than eighty different ones that had been used in my course over the years. I have endeavored to select the ones that have been the most influential, are the most relevant, and are the most interesting. In a few instances, I have chosen works that I believe to be undervalued treasures.
I was not intentionally trying to fill a void as there are a number of similar books by fine authors such as Joseph A. Badaracco, Robert A. Brawer, Robert Coles, Emily Stipes Watts, and Oliver F. Williams, among others. Of course, I did see my evenhanded study of business and capitalism in literature as a nice complement and supplement to these works.
I assume that you'll use this book to teach your own courses, and I suspect other teachers will also use the book in their courses. Anyone who reads the book will quickly understand the reason you believe that imaginative literature and film have pedagogical value in business courses, but would you mind stating some of those reasons for the benefit of those who haven't read the book yet?
The underpinning premise of this book and of my course is that fiction, including novels, plays, and films, can be a powerful force to educate students and employees in ways that lectures, textbooks, articles, case studies, and other traditional teaching approaches cannot. Works of fiction can address a range of issues and topics, provide detailed real-life descriptions of the organizational contexts in which workers find themselves, and tell interesting, engaging, and memorable stories that are richer and more likely to stay with the reader or viewer longer than lectures and other teaching approaches. Imaginative literature can enrich business teaching materials and provide an excellent supplement to the theories, concepts, and issues that students experience in their business courses. Reading novels and plays and watching films are excellent ways to develop critical thinking, to learn about character, and to instill moral values. It is likely that people who read business novels and plays and watch movies about business will continue to search for more of them as sources of entertainment, inspiration, and education.
Who are the intended audiences for your new book?
My target audiences include college students, business teachers, general readers, and people employed in the business world. My summaries and analyses of twenty-five works are intended to create the feel of what it is like to work in business. The premise of the book is that fiction can provide a powerful teaching tool to sensitize business students without business experiences and to educate and train managers in real businesses. Studying fictions of business can provide insights to often inexperienced business students and new employees with respect to real-life situations.
In each of my 25 chapters I provide a sequential summary of the fictional work, interspersed with some commentary that highlights the managerial, economic, and philosophical implications of the ideas found in the work. My emphasis is on the business applications of the lessons of particular novels, plays, and films. This book highlights the lessons that an individual can take from each work and apply to his or her own life. It is not literary analysis for its own sake.
I do not delve deeply into these novels, plays, and films in order to identify previously-covered and previously-uncovered themes in existing scholarship. My book is essentially a study guide for people interested in becoming familiar with the major relevant themes in significant works of literature and film. The book can also serve as a guide for professors who desire to expand their teaching approaches beyond the traditional ones employed in schools of business.
Of course, literary scholars can use my book as a starting point, catalyst, or reference work for their own in-depth scholarly studies of these and other works. For example, I can envision a number of scholars, from a variety of viewpoints, contributing essays to book collections devoted to different literary works. One possible collection that readily comes to mind would be devoted to David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. Other candidates for potential collections might include Howell's The Rise of Silas Lapham, Norris's The Octopus, Dreiser's The Financer, Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky, Lewis's Babbitt, Miller's Death of a Salesman, Hawley's Executive Suite, Lodge's Nice Work, Sterner's Other People's Money, among others. It would be great if some of the contributing literary scholars to these volumes would come from pro-business, pro-capitalist thinkers such as Paul Cantor, Stephen Cox, Ryan McMaken, Sarah Skwire, Amy Willis, Michelle Vachris, and yourself. As you know most literary critics are from the left. Those mentioned above celebrate individualism and freedom in place of collectivism and determinism.
What can be learned from business fiction?
Fiction can be used to teach, explicate, and illustrate a wide range of business issues and concepts. Many fictional works address human problems in business such as managing interpersonal conflict and office politics; using different styles of management; the potential loss of one's individuality as a person tends to become an “organization man”; the stultifying effect of routine in business; the difficulty in balancing work life and home life; hiring and keeping virtuous employees; maintaining one's personal integrity while satisfying the company's demands for loyalty, conformity and adaptation to the firm's culture; communication problems a business may experience; fundamental moral dilemmas; depersonalization and mechanization of human relationships; and so on. Fictional works tend to describe human behavior and motivations more eloquently, powerfully, and engagingly than texts, articles, or cases typically do. Literary authors and filmmakers are likely to develop and present ideas through individual characters. They depict human insights and interests from the perspective of individuals within an organizational setting. Reading imaginative literature and watching films are excellent ways to develop critical thinking and to learn about values and character.
Many novels, plays, and films are concerned with the actual operation of the business system. Some deal directly with business problems such as government regulation, cost control, new product development, labor relations, environmental pollution, health and safety, plant openings and closings, tactics used and selection of takeover targets, structuring financial transactions, succession planning, strategic planning, the creation of mission statements, the company's role in the community, social responsibility, etc. Assessing fictional situations makes a person more thoughtful, better prepared for situations, and better able to predict the consequences of alternative actions. Fiction can address both matters of morality and practical issues. There are many fine selections in literature and film which prompt readers to wrestle with business situations.
Older novels, plays, and films can supply information on the history of a subject or topic. They can act as historical references for actual past instances and can help students to understand the reasons for successes and failures of the past. Older literature can provide a good history lesson and can help people to understand the development of our various businesses and industries. These stories can be inspiring and motivational and can demonstrate how various organizations and managers were able to overcome obstacles, adapt, and survive. Fictional works are cultural artifacts from different time periods that can be valuable when discussing the history of business. Many fictional works present history in a form that is more interesting than when one just reads history books.
Imaginative literature reflects a variety of cultural, social, ethical, political, economic, and philosophical perspectives that have been found in American society. Various images of businessmen have appeared in fictional works. These include the businessman as Scrooge-like miser, confidence man, robber baron, hero, superman, technocrat, organization man, small businessman, buffoon, rugged individualist, corporate capitalist, financial capitalist, man of integrity, etc.
How will your teaching approach change in your Business Through Literature course now that you have published your own book on the subject?
In the past students in this course have read, analyzed, and discussed novels, plays, and films. Each student prepared a minimum of 6 short papers (2000 words each) on the assigned works. Grades were based on these papers and class discussions.
I am experimenting this semester using my book in the class for the first time. I am requiring each student to take notes on each chapter of the book to help them in bringing up topics for class discussion and in participating in class discussions. Each student is also required to prepare and turn in three essay questions on each chapter. These are turned in before each relevant class. Grades for the class are based on class participation and two essay tests.
Isn't the reverse also true that literature students ought to study economics or at least gain an understanding of business from something besides imaginative literature and film, which tend not to portray capitalists in a favorable light?
It would definitely be beneficial for literature students to study classes in business areas such as management, marketing, accounting, and finance. It would help them somewhat if they took a course or two in economics. Unfortunately, almost all college-level economics courses are based on Keynesian economics. I would encourage anyone who takes such courses to read and study Austrian economics in order to gain a more realistic perspective.
You've written a great deal about Ayn Rand, and the chapter on Atlas Shrugged is the longest one in your book. Rand can be a divisive figure, even, perhaps especially, among what you might call “libertarians” or “free marketers” or “capitalists” and the like. But even the people in those categories who reject Objectivism tend to praise Rand's novels. What do you make of that, and do you think there's a lesson there about the novel as a medium for transmitting philosophy?
I suspect that there are a lot of people like me who value “novels of ideas.” There have been many good philosophical novels but none have been as brilliantly integrated and unified as Atlas Shrugged. Rand characterizes grand themes and presents an entire and integrated view of how a man should live his life. Rand's great power comes from her ability to unify everything in the novel to form an integrated whole. The theme and the plot are inextricably integrated. Rand is a superb practitioner of synthesis and unity whose literary style and subject are organically linked and fused to the content of her philosophy. She unifies the many aspects of Atlas Shrugged according to the principles of reality. People from the various schools of “free-market” thought are in accord in promoting an appropriate reality-based social system in which each person is free to strive for his personal flourishing and happiness.
I want to ask about Henry Hazlitt's Time Will Run Back, the subject of chapter twelve of your book. Why do you think this book has not received much attention? It has been, I'd venture to say, all but forgotten or overlooked by even the most ardent fans of Hazlitt. Is the book lacking something, or are there other factors at play here?
Hazlitt's novel may not be “literary” enough for many people. However, in my opinion, the author does skillfully use fiction to illustrate his teachings on economics. I think that the book also has a good story line. Economics professors tend to shy away from using it in their classes. Some may be so quantitatively oriented that they cannot envision using a novel to teach economics. Others may perceive the Austrian economics principles found in Time Will Run Back to not fit in with the Keynesian economics principles found in most textbooks (and of course they are right).
Thank you again for doing this interview. All the best in 2014.
* Allen Mendenhall is a writer, attorney, editor, speaker, and literary critic. Dr. Edward W. Younkins is a Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. ** This interview was first published on The Literary Lawyer, on February 12, 2014.