Friday, 2 September 2016

Holiday reading

I’m just back from holiday and, like many people, holidays are a chance to catch up on reading – meaning reading novels, that is, as opposed to reading organization studies. But for me that distinction is a rather false one. Perhaps it is a reflection of my inability to let go of work, but I often find much in fiction that is informative about organizational life, as I have posted about in the past.

Anyway, the pick of the crop this summer was Peter Hanington’s A Dying Breed (2016), a murky story of murder and politics set in Afghanistan with a BBC journalist as the hero. Since Hanington himself is a BBC journalist who worked in Afghanistan, it has the ring of authenticity. Organizationally, it is the depictions of the BBC – and in particular the flagship Radio 4 Today news programme - that are of particular interest. Plenty of corporate backbiting is on display, along with acerbic, thinly-veiled and distinctly unflattering portraits of some well-known journalists.

Also plausibly authentic are the ‘Liz Carlyle’ novels of Stella Rimington – former head of MI5 – the latest being Breaking Cover (2016), my next holiday read. The setting here is the ‘new Cold War’ of UK-Russian relationships, along with the post-Snowden controversy over data protection. The same setting also provides the plot for A Divided Spy (2016) the latest ‘Thomas Kell’ novel in ex-MI6 officer Charles Cumming’s series, which I also read.

Almost all writers of espionage get compared with John Le Carré (also ex-MI6), and Hanington, Rimington and Cumming are all blessed, or cursed, with this. There is really no comparison, though. Cumming is more like Frederick Forsyth in his heyday (not a bad accolade, of course), and none of them approaches the multi-layered complexity – including the organizational complexity – of Le Carré’s Smiley novels. Only Edward Wilson, in his ‘Catesby’ series, comes close to that in my opinion, and alas there has been no new addition to that series this year. Wilson also has a relevant background, having served with distinction with the US special forces in Vietnam.

Le Carré aside, I don’t suppose that anyone would regard these authors as great writers. Having inside knowledge doesn’t in itself make for good writing, and with the exception of Wilson the books I’ve mentioned suffer in varying degrees from clichéd characters and clunky plots. That isn’t to be snooty as they are all perfectly good popular novels and, for me, perfect holiday reads; and in any case I certainly couldn’t do better! My point is that what the authors’ insider knowledge delivers isn’t necessarily literary merit but contextual, and specifically organizational, plausibility.

That quality of having ‘been there’ is generally lacking in the organization studies literature. Ethnographies alone display it, but ethnographies are time-consuming and increasingly rare because of the time pressures of academic research. Nor does it readily yield a string of journal publications. Almost all qualitative research now is interview-based, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but rarely gives the reader that sense of understanding a hitherto unknown world that ethnography – and fiction – can deliver.

Nevertheless, careful research and a dash of imagination can have the same effect. An example is another of my holiday reads, Alan Furst’s A Hero in France (2016). Furst is also an ex-journalist but the historical settings (usually Europe during or just before the Second World War) are necessarily researched rather than experienced. The research is sometimes too obtrusive, it must be admitted, but in this latest book that is not so, and there is a strong sense – almost a smell – of occupied Paris. Organizationally, though, this story of the French Resistance is very different to that of the BBC or of intelligence agencies. For how do you organize in secret?

And here I return from holiday to work, as this is the theme of my chapter, with Jana Costas, on ‘invisible organizations’ in A Research Agenda for Management and Organization Studies edited by Barbara Czarniawska and published just two days ago.

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