Literary knowledge is urgently required by modern corporations and public organisations. It can act as a useful navigational tool for an age increasingly defined by ‘culture’. This essay argues that the ‘professional reader’ is emerging as one who can deploy this literary toolkit. Conceptually, this intersects management science, literary theory and design thinking.
This essay is the first of a four part series:
#1 Identifying aspects: describing the professional reader: their competencies, networks, and how organizations can begin their program.
#2 Literary tools: we look at the type of tools and concepts that a professional reader uses in their practice.
#3 Cultural trajectories: we begin mapping out the urgent spaces where these literary tools might be applied.
#4 Curriculum resources: we introduce some key texts that can be used as a shared foundational canon.
The identity of the professional reader
First up, who is the professional reader? What distinguishes the way they think, imagine and communicate? What is meant by the term 'literary'? The below sketches a few archetypal mindsets:
The professional reader's practice involves making things 'new' and refashioning the 'old'. They breathe fresh life into timeless styles.
For example, they have a command of genre: detective, gothic, sci-fi, cyberpunk, romance, realism, trauma, psychogeography and so on. They can deploy these narrative structures to invigorate and enliven workshops, training sessions and salons.
Their practice also involves sharing the secrets of the literary arts: working with tools such as irony, metaphor, and narrative.
But perhaps the most important aspect is their cultivation of ‘negative capability'. This is a term coined by the poet John Keats. It describes a sensibility that is comfortable being within tension, uncertainty, transformation, change, unevenness, or confusion. The professional reader can use this destabilising and defamiliarising force to provoke and manage change.
At its most basic, a professional reader is one who reads widely, reviews books, and makes informed recommendations to others.
In today’s parlance, we might think of them alongside self-help guides, life-coaches and wellness consultants. We could formalise this as a ‘literary coach’: offering well placed tips, furnishing an organisations library, sharing a cultural calendar of events, and arranging other activities that bolster an organisations cultural health.
The outcome of this program of activity is the formation of new interpersonal connections, reading relationships, skill exchanges, and social networks.
There are two senses in which a professional reader provides a palliative service to an organisation.
On an individual level, literature helps us through our darkest moments. So, when our jobs make us feel adrift, alienated or anxious, the professional reader provides a hearth: a space that is welcoming, caring and supportive.
On a wider level, the professional reader offers a counterforce to the profit principle of capitalism. They are happy, and capable, to play the Marxist: deploying thinking from from the most searching and rigorous critique of the system ever launched.
Perhaps we can imagine them as a schoolteacher paying close attention to work and behaviour. Whether in meetings, workshops and conferences, they are fastidiously ‘correcting’ narratives. This is urgent: corporate 'digital transformations' are breeding new, previously unimagined, types of working behaviours and mindsets that must be interrogated.
The corporation is fusing with counter-culture.
Movements such as Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, Pride and other progressive projects have acquired support from corporations. Terms like 'value system', 'corporate responsibility and 'brand purpose' all suggest a move towards civic-minded business.
However, these projects are often superficial and toothless. If we scratch the paint, it easily chips away - a problem popularly known as purpose-washing.
The professional reader is well suited for negotiating this new type of social-commercial contract, and pushing for authentic change. They are friend to the subvert: from placard waving protestors, to those whose dissent is more quotidian, domestic and every-day.
The professional reader is one whose mind is compelled to navigate complex experiences. This makes them adept at detangling the ambiguities of late capitalism.
A useful distinction is to be made between ‘complex’ - which is about random, interconnected systems that usually involve humans (such as cities and markets) - and ‘complicated’ - which is a word used to describe machines and engineering (like jet engines and computer code).
Complex situations require a set of competencies that are acquired from the humanities: skills like pattern recognition and systems thinking.
Scholar's are defined as having read a great many books, but the anti-scholar is more interested in the books they have not read. They are concerned with networks of intertextuality: how books and ideas link together.
This term echoes the ‘anti-university’. This was a radical and alternative learning experiment in East London in the late 1960’s organised by leading cultural theorists, including Stuart Hall. It's aim was to create non-hierarchical connections between diverse types of people, outside of socially prescribed roles.
Salons and literary networks
Now that we have sketched out some aspects of their identity, we can begin to explore the kind of social networks that they move within.
Literary networks involve both cultural capital (advanced ideas) and social capital (relationships with different types of people). They have evolved alongside the modern world. They all tune into a similar frequency: we can call it the literary-cultural signal. Coffeeshops, basement bars and public spaces have, historically, all been spaces where the literary/cultural signal could be heard and transmitted.
One space where the literary-cultural signal is strong is the 'salon'. These emerged in the 18th century, during a period of radical social and commercial upheaval: a period we could call modernity. Like today, this was an era of change: global centres of powers were transforming; new commercial infrastructures were being established; and society was being ideologically restructured from a world based on religion to one based on reason.
Salons offer a space for diverse and marginalised voices to be heard – historically, this has been women, artists, and writers. They are semi-formal environments and offer an alternative to corporate and academic settings. We can think of them as intimate spaces for deep, meaningful conversations. Ideas move freely, and attendees seek to improve the art of asking questions, developing empathy, and listening to others.
Salons, and other spaces where the literary-cultural signal operates, enrich the soil of our collective moral consciousness. It is from this rich moral soil that ethical frameworks with strong roots can grow. Networks, such as the salon, significantly contribute to the molecular task of raising a sense of collective awareness. They can become brands in themselves, develop internal politics, become politically active, and create manifestos.
Perhaps the literary-cultural signal has been difficult to hear in the past century? Over the nineteenth and twentieth century, there was a decoupling of the literary from the fields of political, commercial, and social progress. Quantitative methods of understanding the world dominated, and types of fiction, such as the adventure novel, became embroiled in narratives of colonial expansion. Television and cinema captured people’s attention; further diluting the power of the signal. And, towards the end of the century, as neoliberal policies and the age of 'financialisation' began, the ‘postmodern’ era saw a generalised retreat of artists and writers as they began a period of quiet experimentation.
Today, literary ideas are more associated with book clubs, poetry slams, and meetups: these vital spaces keep the literary-cultural signal alive. But, this essay proposes, the advent of the professional reader suggests a new place of literary production: embedded deep within contemporary organisations.
Entry points and installation
Next, we ask: how do we integrate professional readers into an existing organisation? We can answer this by looking at their functions.
But first, a note. There may already be a latent professional reader within the organisation. Or, it may be necessary to build external partnerships. Each situation varies.
As passionate seekers of the new, they provide articulations of the advanced ideas springing from the fringe, underground, outsider and subcultural worlds. These cultural scenes are where good ideas happen: ideas that might offer an improvement on how we do things today. Going one step further, the professional reader seeks to develop healthy structural collaborations between organisations and cultural ecosystems.
As well as buzzy cultural trends, literary writing is concerned with qualia: ‘the introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives’. Delicate topics like memory, time and age – areas that organisations are increasingly shaping - are all subjects that require articulation by a subtle hand.
Businesses are increasingly becoming aware that they are media platforms. This implicates them in politics and society in profound new ways. This opens up two paths...
One path involves continuing the annoying, distracting and one-dimensional advertising that we have become accustomed to.
The other involves a metamorphosis of marketing systems: their reconfiguration into a coordinated, democratic and civic-focused tool. We can imagine a levelling-up of creative communication; an overhaul of brand equity; and a focus on the creation of profound cerebral content - all gravitating around our lived world of products, services and experiences. Podcasts and sponsoring creative prizes are two examples of promising trajectories.
This is to understand marketing as a vital global nervous system that can be harnessed for social justice. An achievable revolution.
Rising awareness of mental health has been gradual. Within this context, the professional reader provides a pastoral function: creating a meaningful and enriching worker experience; increasing the general cultural intelligence; contributing to diversity and inclusion programs; and making cross-department and inter-organizational connections.
A popular term in Silicon Valley, this refers to the engineering of 'meaning', for example: enrichening vocabulary, newly minting words, generating metaphors, applying imagination, putting theoretical ideas into practice and developing both usable pasts and speculative futures.
A new type of researcher
Yuval Noah Harari’s has described the rise of the ‘dataist’ mindset. This reflects our current age of data: feelings are understood as biomechanical processes; authority has shifted from the human heart to algorithms; and our unified scientific paradigm is patterns of 'dataflow'. This encourages us to see literature as a dataset - a corpus being continually written and rewritten - and as a historical archive of our species that is rich, textured, and emotive.
The dataset that the professional reader works with is the canon of literary writers. Viewed thus: novels are reports, and authors are fieldworkers. We can picture writers moving around society collecting observational data, making ‘selections’ of which pieces to include in their writing. They participate in social life, take notes, and plot their data on dynamic story-based structures.
The literary world is already integrated with the insight industry. A leading UK insight publication, the Market Research Society, regularly invites leading authors (such as Will Self and Sebastian Faulks) to provide a keynote at their annual conference. This then encourages us to open a discussion of 'canon': which texts and authors do we privilege? Which literary prizes do we support?
This discussion could reshape budgets, training programs and insight department priorities. Today, most research spend is quantitative: things like AI, surveys and analytics. But history has shown that the pendulum of business research periodically swings. For example, in the 1950's, during the advent of mass manufacturing, Freudian models of the unconscious were used alongside depth interviewing techniques to achieve lifestyle-based brand differentiation. This was a qualitative shift aimed at manufacturing desire amongst standardised items.
We could encourage a similar shift today: accelerating the creation of different boutique providers of qualitative thought.
The Open Brief
With such a wide range of functions for the professional reader, the ‘open brief’ is perhaps the best way to think about this type of engagement. This is a project where the outcome is not defined in advance. It does not get measured in any traditional sense of the term. It leads to undefined activity, avoids predictability, ultimately generating new thinking.
This remit is neither communication nor innovation – the two central forces in business. This is work outside established norms. Instead, the work should be considered as 'creativity'. It aims to produce singularities: timeless artefacts, or distinctive outputs, that can be reactivated to deliver continual use-value.
These dramatically shape organisational memory.
The recent COVID pandemic has exposed an urgent need to rethink how organisations operate.
One investigation revealed that a single management consultancy received £60 million in contract fees from the government during the crisis, positioning them amongst the ‘winners’ of the pandemic. Much of this was spent on a nebulous ‘vision’ that culminated in a failing ‘Track and Trace’ system.
These consultancies operate under what we could call a ‘corporate imaginary’. This limits their capacity to think outside of a standardised, optimised, data-driven and profit-centred logic system. A viable alternative to private outsourcing is to distribute the funds within the public sector, an area whose existence is not predicated on profiteering from public health. This would have generated better ‘blue sky’ thinking whilst strengthening the hugely underinvested sector.
We can use a popular economic term to help us navigate this urgent change: 'creative destruction'. This is when an industrial sector is destroyed and replaced by one that is more efficient than the previous.
Civic minded consultancies should accelerate their own creative destruction. The logic of the 'network' and 'platform' now provides us with direct access to a new type of networked individualism that offers to distribute opportunity more equitably. This is a step that helps us progress from the archaic and dangerous business models forged in the furnace of the 20th century.
A new regenerative model built on collaboration, harmony, empathy, imagination, partnership and sustainability would emerge.
The professional reader appreciates that disrupting and dismantling the status quo is often a slow process. It requires collective action; and this entails patient practise.
Radical routines are an alternative to 'disruption': where the logic of shock and extraordinariness shape innovation. This is a process more aligned with models of domesticity and household maintenance.
The salons, classes and workshops facilitated by professional readers become important regular occurrences. Spaces where people can practice breaking away from entrenched and familiar ways of seeing the world; and settle into regular patterns of ethical alertness.
Radical routines are often built around the small, fragile and unseen: things that need to be protected. Things that, like domestic labour and childcare, are often taken for granted.
Radical routines offer most radical potential when designed into the processes of middle management: a key space where collective awakening and empowerment can achieve impact.
Three modes of activity
Next we look at methods of activating the professional reading practice. The following three modes are the most apparent:
As discussed above, the salon is a historical form that can be updated to today’s requirements. This might be a two hour 'lunch and learn' experience, or a curated evening discussion. We can define the elements of the salon as follows: the articulation of the purpose for coming together; the keywords and concepts to be explored; the atmosphere, rhythm and mood that the salon will evoke; the philosophical and ideological manifesto that will shape proceedings; the specific questions and discussion points that will provoke conversation; and the proposed documenting, archiving and dissemination of any event outcome.
If a salon is relaxed and conversational, a workshop aims to be productive. Activities here might include ‘close reading’ activities. This is where key literary texts and extracts are examined, with focus given to setting, characters, point-of-view, tone, rhythm and so on.
Another type of content might be writing workshops. This would involve handling and crafting the stuff of language: syllables, sentences, lines, type, paper and other material and symbolic things. This activity would lean on our cultural archive of poetic experimentation; play with the effects of different linguistic arrangements; and seek to evolve an organisation’s writing habits.
A more pedagogical approach would be to begin a program of extended learning. To truly master the literary toolkit takes time and requires a working knowledge of literary history. Specific modules could be developed that aligned with the purpose and nature of the organisation, with outside expertise recruited as needed.
As a brief example, my preferred approach to literary history would span the following: Shakespeare’s mapping of the modern mind; the 18th century age of reason; Romanticism and nature; Victorian engineering; the writing of modernity; post-modern experimentation; and, our current epoch, the ‘contemporary’, which we might think about as posthuman or metamodern.
Part four of this essay will develop this is more detail.
Case Study: The Artist Placement Group
What can the professional reader learn from the art world?
The Artist Placement Group (APG) was founded in 1966 and ran throughout the rest of the 20th century. Their mission was to take art out of the gallery and into social contexts: such as industrial, commercial and public institutions.
They were the first to develop artist-in-residency schemes and coined the motto: ‘context is half the work’.
Their archive of work is extensive and is kept at the Tate gallery. Influenced by sculpture, their work often involved artists working with different materials - for example, an early output was a steel sculpture for a steelworks enterprise.
The APG ran 'matching events', introducing practicing artists to PR and managerial teams. Another project involved the provision of art lessons to labourers. And another was a collaboration with residents of a borough to collect oral and visual memories.
However, some of the most compelling areas of their work were not about the specific ‘output’, but about the processual aspects of placing an artist inside an organisation. Over the decades they documented insight into how relationships between artists and managerial teams grew. They also recorded observations on how the wider, non-managerial, workforce interacted with the placement.
Many critical discussion points were raised, such as: what are the expectations on what an artist would and would not do? Who directs the placement - managers or workers? What is the value of what they produce?
The work of the APG suggests a trajectory for the professional reader: narrating the space of opportunity between business and art. They can build upon the APG's work and lay the groundwork for future creative engagements with the emerging generation of artists and experience designers.
Literature, art and new business culture
Contemporary literature is enjoying a convergence with visual, aural and performance art. Lessons from this collision can be ported over to the organisation.
A few examples: many novelists are using patterns taken from conceptual art to structure the plot of their novels; some literary theorists have begun diagramming the action of classic novels to understand their underlying structure; and the ekphrastic poem (a poem that enhances a specific piece of art) is a popular form amongst new writers.
Indeed, much contemporary poetry seems to be explicitly ‘directed’ at someone or something: a return to the simple idea of singing the praises of a worthy muse.
This hints towards a new contract of value between writing and art, and this is producing a new type of narrative and discourse.
When this emerging literary/artistic discourse is mingled with new forms of managerial discourse (whitepapers, organisation charts, client relationships, non-disclosure agreements 'NDA’s', project rituals, team culture etc) we find new spaces of creative convergence and production.
This positions the professional reader as a cultural concierge, or as a bridge, providing a communicative layer between art and organisation: a kind of cultural photosynthesis.
As culturally fluent people working at the level of writing and, as part of an emerging literary network, the professional reader uses their intuition and cultural capital to facilitate and connect organisations to a new generation of creative thinking and doing.
This helps us prepare for the approaching experience economy. Kinetic, immersive, multisensory and haptic encounters between people and technology, driven by the desire to create shareable experiences for social media, is heralding a new age of installations, curated programs, and creative collaborations. The office itself is set to change post-pandemic into experiential spaces for teambuilding, socialising and non-ordinary experiences.
To summarise: the professional reader spots good fits from art and design; communicates their value within the organisation; facilitates the activation; and creates a shared language between artist and worker.
The opportunity presented here is to transform an organisation into a living organism by unifying disparate elements into a cohesive whole.
Creative directors, human resources, innovation teams will all benefit from access to a program of professional reader. More importantly, engineers and coders will benefit from exposure to these alternative working rhythms and patterns.
Overall, starting a professional reading program: provides a method of personal development in critical and creative thinking; fosters a greater understanding of mental health and wellness; promotes a culture of empathy; and accelerates progress towards more diversity and inclusivity. These are some of the most important skills of tomorrow.
Ultimately, the professional reader is a win/win proposition for any organisation that cultivates it as a program.