Schonthaler: Writing, Managing

In Philipp Schonthaler’s Portrait of the Manager as a Young Author, there’s a pretty striking comment on p56, in the vignette ‘Objects in the Mirror’. Schonthaler is talking about the role and function of managers, and he says that managers accumulate authority “through their ability to transform questions of content into questions of organization.” It’s just one line in a book full of good one-liners, but it’s a really tidy summary of the role of a manager. It’s also, come to think of it, an interesting way to conceptualise the task of writing.

Schonthaler’s point in this section is that managers don’t necessarily need to have a great deal of technical knowledge. They don’t have to do the actual grunt work – they’re meant to organise tasks in such a way as to maximise efficiency. So, for example, imagine you’re running a company that turns trees into tables. You’ve got a forest somewhere, and you’ve probably got like a bunch of carpenters somewhere else. So you chop the trees down, and ship them over to the carpenters. Easy. Organised. You don’t need to be able to do the actual carpentry work yourself – you just need to know enough to keep things organised. Maybe you find out that the carpenters don’t use any of the bark or branches. Fine – you get those chopped off in the forest, so that you’re only shipping the parts of the tree that are used. You’re not spending money to transport what is essentially a waste product. Plus, by dropping all the waste, you’re able to transport more tree trunks each trip, lowering the cost of transport per trunk. Questions of content transformed into questions of organization.

And of course some of those words ring true for how we think about creating art – or at least literature. We can talk about writing as an act of organization – that’s something that resonates with us. What’s on the stage, what’s off the stage, managing set-up, reveal, payoff – these are all questions of organization. Even on the more concrete linguistic level, writing a good story – a good anything – is about organization. Each word needs to interact with the ones around it. We arrange lines and paragraphs, both for semantic meaning and for effect. The best way to demonstrate the point is to read awful writing: a lot of the problems you notice are problems of organization. Sentences sit weirdly together. You lose track of cause and effect. Plus, actually, some recent literary theory has emphasized the role of the writer as a type of manager or organizer, rather than as an independent free mind autonomously creating their art out of thin air. Authors take influence from each other, they follow styles and trends, they grow out of the literary tradition that’s come before them. They draw on the things in their environment, their experiences, things that they see or feel. I’ve made reference to these types of arguments before – it’s basically the idea that there’s not really such a thing as originality, and that the artist is really more someone who collates or arranges. It’s in the same conceptual space as ‘death of the author’ – Schonthaler actually mentions it himself elsewhere in the book (‘Royalties’, p73). The point here is not that management and writing are exactly the same. But it’s interesting to think about some of the resonances between them. You don’t have to be a carpenter to write stories about carpentry. You just have to organize its content in such a way as to create a compelling narrative. Maybe having been a carpenter might help – it would give you some insight into the process – but it doesn’t make you an organizer.

In short, even though management and writing are clearly not the same, there is a curious overlap between the two sets of vocabulary. There are also some pretty significant differences. As we established above, management is about creating efficiencies. More trees per truck. And yet efficiency seems an inappropriate concept to apply to literature. At the end of ‘Dead Dogs Don’t Bite’, Schonthaler puts forward his distinction between literature and storytelling. Storytelling, in his view, is goal-oriented – he links it to classical rhetoric. It’s brief, it’s to the point – it’s goal-oriented, right, so efficiency is in that instance an appropriate concept. But storytelling, he suggests, is different to literature. “In storytelling, language is committed to communication and persuasion. It must amount to a statement, message or meaning; otherwise it fails. In contrast, literature fails when it doesn’t go beyond a statement, message, or meaning. It must allow language and speaking themselves to be its object and its truth.” In his view, literature must be inefficient – no, rather, efficiency is a wholly foreign concept. It simply does not apply.

As a point of comparison, it might be worth referring back to this other article I wrote, where I talked about narrative efficiency in Wolfenstein. It’s from the other side of the blog – the side we don’t talk about – but it discusses literature (or something close to it) in kinda the opposite terms. In that instance, I’m complaining about how a game has a bunch of inefficient story beats. It goes down little plot cul de sacs that lead nowhere and don’t really add to the momentum of the story. Efficiency can be a way to think about that process – you don’t want things that add nothing to your story. The developers only have a certain amount of time, a certain amount of space, and they shouldn’t be wasting that time with weird little dead-end narrative beats. It might not be efficiency in terms of presenting a message, but it is efficiency in terms of how wisely you use the narrative space that you have. I appreciate the broader point – if storytelling is more goal-oriented, then you want to get to your goal as quickly and cleanly as possible. It’s driven by economics. It’s functionalist. Whatever logic is in play with literature, it’s not that. But maybe efficiency isn’t as foreign to literature as Schonthaler makes out.

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