The novel cure

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Real Carpio So

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby amassed a fortune in bootlegging. He flaunted his wealth in a very public way to woo Daisy. George Babbitt, the title character in Sinclair Lewis’ novel, is a middle-aged man, “nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people can afford to pay.” More recently, Jane Smiley’s Good Faith follows the scheme of two partners in “an investment venture so complex that no one may ever understand it.” There are three similar characters in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities.

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The greed of the meat-packing factories was appalling in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. In Emile Zola’s Germinal, the same greed led workers to a dramatic strike. Analogous scenes are littered in the novels of Charles Dickens.

The characters and scenes in these novels are easily recognizable in real life. Yet most business people can’t and won’t recognize them.

In business, fiction has largely been ignored because its only function seems to be entertainment. Unlike information, fiction does not seem to have empirical or utility value. Especially for novels, business people find them a waste of time. To them, Covey, Drucker, or Maxwell have more probative value than Eco, Gordimer, or McEwan.

Lost is the fact that fiction, far more than entertainment, offers models of simulation of the social world. Readers share the thoughts and emotions of the characters in the stories, which are abstractions of the realities of the human social world. Through stories, readers gain understanding of others who are different from themselves.

For more than a decade, academic researchers, such as Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar from York University
have gathered data indicating that reading fiction increases the reader’s understanding of human emotions, which relates to the improvement of one’s social skills.

In one of their studies, the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RME) was administered. Subjects were asked to guess the emotional state of a person from a photograph of their eyes. The studies conclude that “the more fiction people read, the better they are at perceiving emotions in the eyes, and… correctly interpreting social cues.” An expansion of their research revealed “a significant relation between the amount of fiction people read and their empathic and theory of mind abilities.”

Theory of mind refers to the ability to what is in the mind of others. Behavior is a manifestation of the mental states. By inferring what others are thinking, feeling and intending, one can predict the actions and reactions of others.

According to Oatley and Mar, fiction contains stories populated by intentional characters striving to resolve conflicts. The plot is a depiction of the actual world. In contrast, non-fiction contains only information. The expository texts have no parallels with the actual world. Their studies conclude that “frequent readers of non-fiction, then, by sacrificing human interaction and replacing it with no similar substitute, may actually impair their social skills.”

Unlike Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, it took quite a few of my colleagues some time to complete their metamorphoses. Reading a novel may be helpful for reversing the transformation.

Real Carpio So lectures on strategy and human resource management at the Management and Organization Department of the Ramon V. del Rosario College of Business of De La Salle University. He is also an entrepreneur and a management consultant. He welcomes comments at realwalksonwater@gmail.com. Archives can be accessed at realwalksonwater.wordpress.com. The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of DLSU, its faculty and its administrators.

REAL CARPIO SO 

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