Thursday, January 26, 2012

Reading (SF) Novels Is Good for Business

I read an article the other day that made an interesting point that you don't hear very often around most offices: that reading novels is good for business.

Anne Kreamer's "The Business Case for Reading Novels" (published in The Harvard Business Review, but which came to me via the professional news update feed that LinkedIn emails me on a regular basis) talks about research into the practical benefits of reading fiction indicating it helps develop the ability to understand and read emotion, thus improving "social skillfulness" and the ability to collaborate. Openness to new experience is benefitted. The brain's ability to set goals is stimulated. Kreamer noted all of these are key to success in dealing with colleagues and clients, and she also points to research indicating high emotional intelligence leads to raises and promotions, can reduce labour tensions, and increase productivity.

I hadn't run into the research Kreamer cites before (certainly my fault, not that of the studies' authors), but what she's saying certainly matches what I've picked up intuitively by watching other people in workplaces and how various different types of personalities (including readers and non-readers) operate.

And as a science fiction and fantasy fan, I'd take Kreamer's point a step further and make the claim that reading SF in particular is good for business.

Admittedly, I don't have years-long surveys of thousands of people to back my assertion, and admittedly, being an SF fan, I've got a fairly obvious bias, but based on observation of many people in many different types of workplaces over the years, I'd say that it's the case that the science fiction and fantasy readers tend to have a greater mental flexibility than their peers. After all, if you're consistently reading about places and situations ranging from the nearly normal to the completely strange, your brain has to be able to do a certain amount of acrobatics to be able to understand how the plot and characters will be affected - you learn to see things from a different point of view. This is especially true of the ability to understand different mindsets of other individuals. Some authors work very hard, and are successful at, portraying characters that are alien not only in their form, but in their use of language and imagery, and their thinking - maybe somewhat different, yet ultimately comprehensible like Simmons' AI Elder Ummon in Hyperion; kind of decipherable but not entirely, like the cast of Watts' Blindsight; or others that are just completely unfathomable (and here I'm thinking of any super-race that's so massively powerful and distant in its thoughts and agendas, like the Rama builders at the end of Clarke's series of the same name, or the gate builders in Wilson's Blind Lake). To deal with characters like that and not lose meaning so completely that the experience of the plot disintegrates and interest vanishes requires readers to really put forth an effort to understand. Not something that's demanded of readers of mainstream fiction to anywhere near the same degree.

From my professional background in communications, I'd also say the business advantage of reading science fiction and related genres/sub-genres is that there are some damn fine writers out there who can teach you a lot. Bradbury, first and foremost. I've gushed about old Ray on many previous occasions, but really, if you're in communications, hell, if you have to write anything at all, you can really get a lot out of paying attention to the old master's style. Bradbury knows how to write big, chunky, beautifully descriptive prose. But as large as his sentences and descriptions may sometimes get, they're still very much speakable. And that's the key to really good writing, something that broadcasters have figured out (again, my own bias is shining through here), but quite a few print-only journalists and communications pro's without broadcast experience haven't: that the best text is that which is written for the ear, not the eye. Human beings communicated verbally long before we started scratching our words on whatever surface would hold them. And so if you have to write for an audience, the best way to do it is to write as though you were speaking. And Bradbury's copy is just made to read out loud. Find a recording of him online and listen. Or better yet, grab one of his stories and try it yourself. You'll see. If more communications professionals bothered to read Bradbury, there'd be more compelling speeches and profile stories out there. Straczynski's good too sometimes - especially G'Kar's dialogue in seasons 3-5 of B5 (granted, the medium is television rather than a novel, and the point of this piece is the advantage of novel reading, but in general, JMS is a great writer). Science fiction authors also tend to be able to do a good job of making technical jargon easily understandable, or at least palatable enough to set the stage or introduce a plot device without detracting from the story (aside from the offerings of a few hard-SF authors who seem to wallow too much in the tech-talk). A few communications types I've known over the years could learn from that.

So the next time someone tells you to quit wasting your time with that sci-fi book, tell them it's not just entertainment, it's an investment in the success of your business.