Tuesday, May 19, 2009

David Brooks' "Hare" Raising Spectre

If your life is the subject of a book, you may not want to have lived it.

This truth was slow in coming to the highway scribe who spends less time each year on the highway and more time on scribery. The goal is to be an artist known more for his work than his public exploits.

A matter of substance, if you will.

Lives that are worthy of a literary recounting are exceptional things. In rare cases, extraordinary biographies can consist in a litany of experiences kissed by the Gods and sun alike.

But usually, what makes for a good read are those rollercoaster rides spiked with irony, tragedy, movement, and setbacks answered with victories and then succeeded by sudden drops in fortune again.

That's how life is. The more you go for, the more you are subjected to and the vast majority prefer things even-keeled so that their life trajectory rarely becomes the stuff of bestsellers.

"New York Times," columnist David Brooks has scripted "In Praise of Dullness," which posits that the story of American business is not much told, nor well understood, by writers.

The piece focuses on recent studies regarding what makes a good corporate Chief Executive Officer.

The results favored a humdrum personality: "The C.E.O.s that are most likely to succeed are humble, diffident, relentless and a bit unidimensional. They are often not the most exciting people around."

Which is well and good and something we knew thanks to Aesop's fable, "The Tortoise and the Hare."

It is one reason (the other being money) why highwayscribery spends less time bounding through fits of international adventure and more time eating Orville Redenbacher's "old-fashioned butter" popcorn in front of a Dell.

Providing good information on running a company, should it ever come to that, Brooks runs the boat aground with his subsequent assertion that these Tortoise types demonstrate why, "people in the literary, academic, and media worlds rarely understand business. It is nearly impossible to think of a novel that accurately portrays business success."

highwayscribery would suggest Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" fits the bill, just not in the way a profit-focused guy like Brooks is looking for.

But that's neither here nor there. Our beef is with Brooks' separation of art, literature, market, and business into separate rarified environments.

An artist himself, the columnist reasons that "the market" -- that Gilded God of all pinstriped and serious folk -- demands a tortoise run the business.

What interests writers, on the other hand, is "self-expression and self-exploration."

But these endeavors are personal goals of novelists and not necessarily the subject of their work, which involves a search for, and construction of, the good yarn.

Artists are subject to markets, too. And these markets are more particular, less democratic or meritorious than anything the newly minted MBA will experience upon emerging from the Wall Street subway station

The very nature of their craft condemns writers to the tortoise's way. In a variation on the them Gore Vidal's "Palimpsest" refers to the "bovine" character of the novelist slowly masticating his cud, his subject.

Brooks, who works in Washington D.C., notes how monotone business leaders don't fare well in a place where political leaders brandish their "charisma, charm, personal skills."

But business is the story of American politics as this piece on the Employee Free Choice Act's dwindling chances, in spite of a Democratic president and majority, will attest.

Brooks' earlier March 16 piece "The Commercial Republic" suggests much the same.

For every Obama or Reagan that struts his term upon the national stage, there remains behind a Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.) or a Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), humble (maybe not so much), anonymous, and busy as bees.

The columnist perceives the Obama administration's "interposing" of artistic temperaments upon industrial management culture and fears it is unleashing "a revolution in values" damaging to American business.

But Brooks is interposing a "hare" mythology onto noncorporate types that doesn't fit well.

Every endeavor cultivates its slow-pokes, passionate in their pursuit of incremental progress, and committed to the long haul in a way Wall Street has rarely been in recent years.

So we should be alright.

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