Book Review: Busy Storytellers

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Portrait of the Manager as a Young Author
On Storytelling, Business, and Literature
Philipp Schönthaler
Published by MIT

The world is a changing and the stories are too, or at least how they’re told. Radically so. By the end of this little book it is, according to novelist Tom McCarthy, ‘funky architecture firms, digital media companies and brand consultancies that have assumed the mantle of the avant-garde’. And the German author of Portrait of the Manager as a Young Author, Philipp Schönthaler shows us how and why.

Schönthaler’s starting point is the early 80s when the marriage of corporate advertising and narrative storytelling takes a new, edgier form. It was around this time that Steve Jobs famously asked the then PepsiCo vice president John Sculley ‘Do you really want to sell sugar water, or do you want to come with me and change the world?’

This story has an eerie evangelical ring to it, and has obviously gone down in Silicon bit lore (I’m sure it’s inked into the DNA of any budding coder). But the reason such captured narrative has gained ever-increasing significance in the corporate world (Microsoft has a chief of ‘stories’), is not only due to the very obvious human dimension, but because it is also immediate and digestible. With so much data overwhelming us at every level, stories offer a comprehensive and intelligent way to clarify complexity, both to the public and to fellow employees. The more relatable the more successful. Plus, it captures ideas and importantly captures the imagination: every corporation now requires its very own, in-house Edward Bernays. A magician to curate the dream.

Schönthaler is a calm and lucid guide, explaining the age-old ancient relationship of trade, business and stories. Quite rightly he points to the fact that literature has always been dependent on and coterminous with economic development, and this is certainly the case with the modern European novel and its development from the 17th century right up to the present. Directly related to this, the book is also good on the rise and omnivorous nature of the management class – from former Head of the World Bank Steve Denning discovering the explosive power of knowledge management and subsequently overseeing the said bank’s transition to becoming a ‘knowledge bank’, to the fascinating thriller genre of German manager novels (who knew…?).

It is apt that the title of the book is a pun on James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Tracing the early years of the central character Stephen Dedalus, Joyce (deploying free indirect discourse) grows the language of the novel to reflect Stephen’s developing mind. Thus the story begins with hiccuped childlike prose rendered beautifully simple, becoming more complex and self-conscious as Stephen grows precious – adolescent – kinda like Silicon Valley and AI these days, no?