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Culture and technology
2 July 2013

Entrepreneurs are the villains of fiction, but the heroes of real life

Here’s something you might want to try at home: Make a note of every businessman you see portrayed in a film or a novel or any other work of fiction. Note in particular whether the character is depicted as being good, bad or morally ambiguous. In all likelihood, he’ll be a wrong ’un – and quite possibly the villain of the piece.

In popular fiction – the crime and thriller genres especially – this is only to be expected. But what about literary fiction, where you might expect serious character studies instead of lazy stereotypes?

You won't have much luck there either, says Stephen Miller, in a fascinating overview for the Weekly Standard. Serious writers rarely show much sympathy for, or understanding of, the business world:

  • "Disdain for commerce is what might be called a topos—a recurrent theme in Western literature. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is insulted when a Phaeacian thinks Odysseus is a trader because Odysseus declines to participate in an athletic competition. In the Homeric world, traders supposedly lack athletic prowess. Odysseus is furious. ‘Your slander fans the anger in my heart!’”

Merchants continued to be viewed with suspicion right through to the early modern era – the most famous example being the Merchant of Venice. But then things change: 

  • It was not until the late 17th century that some English writers began to challenge the traditional view of commerce. In the Spectator, Joseph Addison… made a radical suggestion: English aristocrats, who often led idle lives, should emulate the Jews and become industrious men of commerce. Jews, Addison says, have greatly benefited humankind because they are traders: ‘They are, indeed, so disseminated through all the trading parts of the world, that they are become the instruments by which the most distant nations converse with one another and by which mankind are knit together in a general correspondence.’”

Other business-friendly writers of the era include David Hume and Samuel Johnson. However, with the dislocations of the Industrial Revolution, the literary pendulum swung back the other way – with villainous factory owners and double-dealing tycoons all over the shop.

American literature was something of an exception:

  • “‘Many of our most valuable public men have been merchants,’ said Washington Irving. According to Walt Whitman, America was destined for a ‘grander future’ than Europe, in part because of ‘the complicated business genius .  .  . of Americans.’ In his journals, Ralph Waldo Emerson said that ‘we rail at trade, but the historian of the world will see that it was the principle of liberty; that it settled America, and destroyed feudalism, and made peace and keeps peace; that it will abolish slavery.’”

Some may doubt whether the good opinion of the scribbling classes is of any great relevance. But if it is the case that great art shapes culture and that cultural change influences economic development, then, yes, literature does matter.

We should, therefore, be concerned by the relentlessly negative portrayal of commerce in our contemporary culture. From Gordon Gecko to Montgomery Burns, fiction seems to provide only negative role models.

It would help if real life didn’t produce characters like Fred ‘the Shred’ Goodwin, but that still leaves thousands of other business people who put everything on the line to create real wealth. Doesn’t their story deserve to be told too?

Stephen Millar concludes on a pessimistic note:

  • “...most American literary writers will continue to dislike commerce, especially corporate commerce, and most will continue to regard profit-making with suspicion, which is why most American writers are liberals.”

Can that really be true? Surely, the causality runs the other way round. In any case, there are many wonderful conservative writers – it’s just that they’re more likely to be writing columns than novels. Perhaps it’s just a question of mindset. Rightwingers like facts and argument; while leftwingers are naturally drawn to fiction.


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