Schonthaler: Numbers and Stories

Alright. I said we were done with Calvin, and we were. It got pretty down to the wire with some of those – that last one I was finishing up maybe twenty minutes before it was due to go live? And yet it’s probably the one I’m proudest of. Complete change of pace now though: for the next few weeks we’re dealing with Philipp Schonthaler’s Portrait of the Manager as a Young Author. Subtitled On Storytelling, Business, and Literature, it’s a short fun little book that talks about the relationship between narrative and business. It’s partially about how narrative has been borrowed by marketing departments – the book spends a lot of time talking about Coke, for instance – but it’s also about some of the ways in which business feeds back into narrative and literature. As I say, it’s a short book, so most of the pieces we’ll be dealing with are little vignettes that particularly struck me.

We’ll start off with a relatively gentle example: numbers vs stories, from the vignette ‘By the Numbers’. Schonthaler opens this vignette by noting that even a hundred years ago, “storytelling … was falling by the wayside in favour of the factual, abstract rationality of technology and statistics.” And yet – and I think we’ve all seen this – in some ways, numbers are meaningless. They need interpretation, they need to be contextualised – and then they’re also sometimes meaningless in that one single statistic isn’t necessarily convincing evidence. We know that people can pick their stats selectively to make themselves and their arguments look good. In Christianity, we call that proof texting. Thus, Schonthaler suggests, “words and numbers both vouch for a truth and come under suspicion of unjustified dominance. Both are also treated as means of manipulation, enlightenment, and salvation.” He says that numbers and words are interdependent, which he calls a “banal yet momentous insight” (which really just means it’s banal), and we move into the idea that people have to figure out their own balance between the two.

One of my favourite examples of this balance is the ‘98% fat free’ products. There’s the raw number, which is a fact, sure, but then there’s also sort of a story in there too. With that number, the company is saying well, we know that fat is bad for you, it’s unhealthy, and we want to be responsible and help keep you healthy, so we wiped out the fat – but we left just a little smidge in, because – fuck, it’d be boring otherwise, wouldn’t it, we all want a bit of fun in these things. That’s a lot of complex information. The idea of ‘all gone, but not quite’ taps into a common feeling – we all want to be healthy, but we kinda hate the fun police. We don’t totally want to give up on sugar or fat or whatever else. And what’s interesting there is that the companies who put those products out probably did their market research, figured out some of the cultural attitudes towards healthy eating and so on, and then told a story about what it means to eat their product. But there’s a mathematical, probabilistic logic underlying the decision about which story should be told using which number. That’s an interesting little scramble.

So we have this interaction between stories and numbers, which in some ways is good for literature. It seems like narrative has a long and healthy life ahead. It’s useful for communicating information. It has a role in our society. It’s powerful, it’s effective – it can be misused and cause a fuckload of damage. Boris Johnson’s Brexit bus tells a story that will continue to loom over Britain. Story isn’t going away. That should be encouraging for the literati. The downside, from their perspective, is that story is operating under a commercial and economic imperative. We’re not talking about the power of literature here, we’re talking about the power of marketing. The power of brand, of business storytelling. Literature, so-called, isn’t really involved in this process. We’re not talking about the power of art, where people read great literature and become enlightened, uplifted creatures. We’re talking about ads. The literati exist here in something of a double-bind: they want stories to be relevant and important, but when they’re presented with the relevant and important things that stories do (ie sell products), they don’t like it.

From that perspective, side note, I actually see the moralistic arm of literary studies as a way of grasping at cultural relevance. When we’re talking about sexism in literature, racism, representation of different perspectives and backgrounds – I’m not against that approach, to be clear. I do think it’s important and good – and I actually think it’s working. I’ve obviously written a few pieces from that perspective myself. At the same time, without detracting from any of its achievements, it is worth noting that this school of thought has been a way for literary studies to find relevance in the modern world. They have their critics – the late Harold Bloom famously referred to them as the ‘School of Resentment’ – but it’s made literary studies relevant again.

And on some level, that search for relevance underpins this whole conversation. When we’re talking about literature as opposed to finance and economics and data analytics and management, it’s because we’re trying to justify our attachment to literary analysis – an attachment that in many ways feels unjustifiable. Maybe this is more a me thing, but I went through five years of studying English Literature, and it felt important. And it’s really hard to justify that feeling. It’s true, but it’s not provable. You can’t make money off literary analysis, unless you’re Terry Eagleton, and even then it’s a hard run. And it’s getting harder to imagine types of value outside of our economic system. I went to see Neil Gaiman talk recently. It reminded me that I was spending too much time reading non-fiction, biographies and so on. I wasn’t taking the time to read good literature. So I came home and started reading the Divine Comedy. I’m enjoying it. Next week, more Schonthaler.

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