Although I do not remember exactly where, but I read this poignant difference between a columnist and a novelist; a columnist writes for the day and most often what he writes for the day is a part of trash the next day while a novelist writes with at least the intention of seeing his work outlast him. It had struck me then that while this may be a debatable definition for some, it had some ring of truth in it. It is not a surprise that most of us will struggle to remember names of columnists who would have ruled the column inches half a century ago while we can rattle many a names of accomplished novelists still widely read and relevant even after half a century or more. In fact many a times those remarkable novelists actually seem more and more relevant with each passing decade, sometimes acquiring cult status long after they are dead and gone. I thought there was something that leadership in the corporate world could reflect from this distinction.
It is not uncommon to find leaders who work for the day or the quarter or the year at best. Many of them are quite smart and sharp and have had the privilege of the best possible education and exposure. Yet once in a while there comes a leader who refuses to fall prey to the very real and very pragmatic lure of fixing the current leak instead of looking into the quality of the pipe itself! The lure of ‘today’ is not very easy to resist; there is exhilaration in solving for the day. It gives a ‘sugar rush’ that misleads energy for nutrition, to borrow a dietary metaphor.
The columnist enjoys his fame every morning only to realize it by noon that he needs another one for tomorrows morning. He has to find newer and often more dramatic ways to capture the attention of his readers every day morning, day after day. It is a kind of pressure that makes us often slip on the slope of populism.
God help the team and the organization that lives for the day – even though there is indeed a struggle for existence daily.
The aphorism behind which this is sought to be intelligently hidden is often ‘’without the short-term there is no long-term’.
A novel and by implication the novelist on the other hand is a different kettle of fish. It is hard labor — of thinking deeply about the plot and the characters, of doing the meaningful work of fleshing out those characters and what they would stand for; of at least having the broad understanding of the sequence of events, the drama, the tension and the wide flow of the narrative and finally ascertaining how it would connect with the reader at a very deep level.
A good novel is written when it finds resonance for the voice of many even if it is being written as the voice of one. A good novelist is adept at finding the echo of the collective even as she begins the search for her own voice. There is universality even in the novelist’s uniqueness – and a novelist transcends those boundaries. Leaders have a thing or two to learn from this.
Finally, even as the flow of events in a novel takes the plot and the characters forward, each growing in meaning, significance and stature and by the time the reader flips the last page both the readers and the characters find solace in the meaningfulness of the journey. It makes the tumult every bit worth its while.
So what distinguishes a columnist and a novelist at a very fundamental level and what can leadership learn from the distinction – even though there is merit in the thought that in real corporate world we need to be both; that there is symphony in the balance between both.
I believe that at a very fundamental level, the novelist has a far greater sense of the long-term than the columnist. A novelist is not in a hurry — she is willing to give the characters time to build, the story time to evolve. He recognizes that institution-building is a slow and painstaking process; that speed might have virtues but has great follies too.
The second distinction is that a novelist, while having an eye for the reader’s approval is not held ransom by it. A novelist is willing to go three levels beneath the issue, unraveling human motives and angst layer by layer. The novelist appears to be far less prone to populism of the day, far more courageous to say things that might hurt current sensibilities but things that must be said and confronted if any meaningful breakthrough has to be accomplished.
The third distinction is a distinction of style of narrative — a novelist uses characters to bring out contrarian points of view. It has a far less chance of being perceived as pontification or sermons this way than a columnist.
Real people get inspired by real stories and not by intellectual abstractions and concepts.
The fourth and final distinction between them that leaders in the corporate world can possibly learn from is the rather obvious deep embedding of the author in a novel than a columnist in a column. There is so much of the author, his experiences and stake in the novel that it is quite impossible to decant the novelist from the novel. This adds so much more credibility for the novelist in the eyes of the reader. The columnist and the column, and this need not be really so but appears to be more and more true, usually appears to be two different entities. We relate to the messenger as much and perhaps more, than the message. Our ability to assimilate and act on a message becomes so much more when we realize that the messenger has equal or even more stake in the message. The corporate world usually says this differently – ‘’there is skin in the game’.
For the record – I like novelists and columnists in equal measure; but if push comes to shove my vote will be for the former.