Fiction versus non-fiction: which is easier?

I’m working on the sequel to my novel To Create a World and I have to admit it’s really hard to get started each time. But once I do start, it’s so rewarding!

My non-fiction book The Weight-Loss Paradox was kinda the opposite. It was really easy to start. So easy, I started again 18 times before I was happy with my approach. That’s 17 instances of intense frustration until I finally found the right angle.

Non-fiction is like having a single amazing idea that you know so well you could write it out a hundred different ways and still be drawing on the same central theme. But I can’t be satisfied until that idea is expressed purely and clearly enough, in a way that will engage the reader.

That’s why it took so many tries to finally write The Weight-Loss Paradox. It was only 14,000 words, but those words had to be right on the mark. They had to be inspired in line with the idea behind them.

Fiction is completely different. Fiction is worked out in the process of writing it. At the beginning I have only a vague idea of what’s going to happen, and many of my ideas are rejected along the way or reformed into something almost unrecognisable.

In that sense, fiction is like growing a text. It’s like fashioning a little bonsai or Pen Jing tree. You have to shape it, water it, feed it, and keep it alive. But the work happens while it grows and that lends the work an aspect of discovery no matter how well you think you’ve plotted it at the beginning.

To Create a World had seven drafts, but each of those drafts was about refining and improving a structure or a theme that I didn’t know the book would necessarily contain. It’s like pruning back something that you only partially understand.

If fiction is like growing a text, non-fiction is like having one machined or fabricated. With non-fiction the central idea behind the text is not only clear, it’s like a blueprint. The final result must reflect the blueprint as far as possible. There may be issues that arise and innovations that emerge, but if it deviates too far from the blueprint it simply won’t work.

That’s why, when it comes to the question of difficulty, it’s hard to measure either by effort or duration.

My novel took 15 months and came out at 70,000 words.

My weight-loss book took 3 months and came out at 14,000 words.

So that means my weight-loss book was one-fifth the time and effort of my novel, right?

Well not really, because it took me a year to work out the idea behind my weight-loss book and apply it in my own life. In other words, the ‘research’ behind non-fiction can take as long or longer than the writing of the novel.

I plan to write another non-fiction book about the temperaments, and again that’s an idea I’ve been turning over and refining for a few years. When I finally come to write it, it too might only take a couple of months, but the research and thinking behind it are as long as a novel, if not longer.

Perhaps the best way to look at it is that my non-fiction books have a logical or theoretical coherence that allows the research to be done well before the book is actually written. Meanwhile my fiction has an emotional and narrative coherence that means the research/planning must be done while the book is being written so that it is adaptive to whatever changes or challenges arise along the way.

Want to read the books I’ve written? Click on the covers below to find out more!

The moral betrayal of corporate dysfunction

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The previous post on careerism sparked some thoughts about my past employment.

My own recent employment was as a researcher within a corporation that did not understand research, but wanted at least to feel like it was doing research, or failing that, wanted to be seen to be doing research.  By the time my employers decided to make their entire research staff redundant, they had, by my estimation, achieved merely the even lesser goal of being seen to want to be involved in someone else’s research.

In the previous post I quoted Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme, suggesting that careerism takes hold when an employer cannot tell the difference between work that is good enough and work that is better.  In my experience this problem was magnified a hundred fold as what was considered ‘good enough research’ from a business perspective would not have been considered ‘good enough’ in a genuine research context.  To be perfectly honest, it wouldn’t even have been considered ‘research’, and I joked with my colleagues that at best it could merely be described as ‘search‘.

It reminds me of an excerpt I read from a book about PTSD: ‘Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character‘ by Dr Jonathan Shay.  In it he explains that the roots of trauma lie in the subversion of the soldier’s moral world, as when in the Illiad “Agamemnon, Achilles’ commander, wrongfully seizes the prize of honor voted to Achilles by the troops.” Shay illustrates his point through the story of a patrol team during the Vietnam War that opened fire on three boats that were suspected of unloading weapons.  When morning came, they found that the boats were merely fishing vessels, and in one veteran’s words: “we found out we killed a lot of fishermen and kids.”

What got us thoroughly fucking confused is, at that time you turn to the team and you say to the team, “Don’t worry about it. Everything’s fucking fine.” Because that’s what you’re getting from upstairs. The fucking colonel says, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of it.” Y’know, uh, “We got body count!” “We have body count!” So it starts working on your head.

[…] So you know in your heart it’s wrong, but at the time, here’s your superiors telling you that it was okay. So, I mean, that’s okay then, right? This is part of war. Y’know?

[…] They wanted to give us a fucking Unit Citation – them fucking maggots. A lot of medals came down from it. The lieutenants got medals, and I know the colonel got his fucking medal. And they would have award ceremonies, y’know, I’d be standing like a fucking jerk and they’d be handing out fucking medals for killing civilians.

The circumstances could not be more different, but the underlying psycho-social dynamics are remarkably similar.  In my case, I and my fellow researchers were given tasks that turned out to be dismally below standard in research terms, but we were told by our manager and senior colleagues “this is part of business”, “we’re kicking goals”, “we’re putting runs on the board”.

Despite knowing on a deeper level that this was not the way to do serious research, it is true that such talk from one’s superiors starts working on one’s head.  Maybe they have different standards? Maybe this is good enough on a business level?  Maybe we really are doing a good job from their point of view?  And in the end, you find yourself standing there like an idiot while the CEO or some other senior executive offers a glowing endorsement of all the ‘ground-breaking research’ our team had been involved in.

By that stage, I think it’s quite reasonable to feel – as I did at the time – that an organisation which rewards such incompetence is beyond help.  In particular it is beyond, and would most likely be antagonistic to, correction by a junior member of staff who just happens to bear the misfortune of knowing what real research looks like.  Like the veteran in Shay’s book, these experiences of moral dysfunction within an organisational hierarchy leave many subordinates bitter, cynical and disenfranchised, while less scrupulous employees choose to cling to the facade of success and achievement for their own ends.

The more I learn of others’ experiences, the more I am inclined to appreciate the peculiarities of my corporate experience: being a specialist in an organisation incapable and perhaps even unwilling to make use of my specialist skills.  It’s like a person who signs up for an expensive gym membership, uses it once or twice ineffectually, and then lets it lapse.

No doubt it’s bad enough being a corporate stooge in a dysfunctional corporate world, but being a philosopher and researcher – a veritable fish out of water – made the dysfunctional corporate experience all the more painful.  While my colleagues and I have each lamented the lost opportunity and squandered potential of our prior employment, I’m increasingly sure that in terms of corporate culture and dysfunction our experience was, to borrow from World War II military slang, SNAFU: situation normal, all fucked up.

The ethics of management: hypocrisy

Hypocrisy is defined as:

the practice of claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case.

In ‘The Prince’ Machiavelli argues that it is much better to be seen to be virtuous than to actually have virtue”

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

In my experience, a corporate environment encourages the same duplicity. The values may differ – more popular keywords like ‘communication’, ‘connectedness’, and ‘creativity’ replacing traditional ones – but the pressure to keep up appearances is as real in business as it is in politics. It is not necessary for a manager to have these corporate qualities, but it is necessary for a manager to appear to have them.

Sometimes there’s an aspect of ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ at play. No one has the courage (or rather, the disregard for their own career prospects) to tell a seemingly enthusiastic superior “I have no idea what you’re talking about”. But the difference is that the emperor believed in his clothes, whereas a hypocritical manager merely pays them lip-service.

Nonetheless, lip-service is powerful. Studies such as the Asch Conformity Experiment have shown that most people will change either their belief or their external behaviour to conform with majority opinion; how much more so when majority opinion is reinforced with financial and career considerations and the authority of a corporate hierarchy?

Hypocrisy in a superior is demoralising. The problem with a manager who is adept at “claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case”, is not that such a facade actually convinces people, but that it hides the truth, coerces conformity, and prohibits genuine communication. A manager who likes to gush gratuitously about how “I love my team!” is either a simpleton, on the verge of a mental breakdown, or very clearly demonstrating the tone of discourse she expects from her subordinates.

I once had a manager who was put in charge of a research department despite having no research qualifications or experience. In this context, hypocrisy translated into publicly talking up the supposed research goals and achievements, with liberal use of terms such as “world’s best practice”, “evidence based”, “rigorous”, and “validated”, while at the same time lowering the bar in terms of actual standards of evidence and methodologies employed, under the guise of ‘business priorities’ and the need to ‘kick some goals’.

Such was the magnitude of this hypocrisy that we, the researchers, mistook it for ignorance. Surely no one in their right mind would falsely claim such objective research standards? Surely the manager was just naive or confused? It took a long time, given our minimal one-way communication with our manager, to confirm that she had never intended for us to do real research in the first place, and though ignorance of research had clearly played a role in claiming such high standards, the gap between PR and reality was seemingly of no real consequence to our manager, the business, or the supposed mission of the ‘research’ enterprise of which we were a part.

By the time we confirmed this, no less than the Chairman of the Board had already publicly described as ‘ground breaking research’ a piece of work so hamstrung and hobbled by a ‘business’ mindset that it hardly warranted the label ‘research’, let alone the embarrassing hyperbole of ‘ground breaking’.

Yet this vindicates management hypocrisy: it was indeed beneficial for our manager to be seen to have presided over ‘ground breaking research’ without the uncomfortable necessity of having to actually facilitate such research, with its impractically indefinite timeframes, dangerously uncertain outcomes, and awkwardly un-businesslike ethos. Much safer to initiate a project with predetermined outcomes and just tell everyone how ground-breaking it was. The Chairman of the Board might be right at the top of the corporate pecking-order, but when it comes to assessing the merits of alleged research he was, ironically, as susceptible to the hypocrisy of middle-management as we, the researchers.

Last I heard, our former manager was still in charge of a research department with dedicated admin support and business development personnel, but no actual researchers. The irony is delightful, and entirely appropriate to the business ethos of style over substance.

In the end Machiavelli was right, hypocrisy is indeed of great advantage to the Prince. But in embracing hypocrisy the Prince becomes a contemptible creature without moral or intellectual integrity.

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

I recently posted the following comment in response to my article on gender equality at Mercatornet.

I’m reposting it here because the substance is generic: you can’t have a dialogue where only one person is willing to do the heavy lifting.


It’s unfortunate that an article on gender equality, violence against women, and the need for intelligent critique that doesn’t degrade into prejudice has met with comments arguing that the theme of ‘violence against women’ is some kind of bigoted campaign to stigmatise men, that the best available sources of information and methodologies can simply be disregarded as ‘lies’ in favour of ‘common sense’ and personal experience, or that violence against women is merely a subset of violence in general, for which women are somehow largely to blame.

I have spent some hours searching for valid sources of information and statistics in the hope that we could engage in rational discussion; I have even provided evidence such as statistics on the numbers of children in single-parent households, which my interlocutor claimed was being censored as some kind of conspiracy or plot by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Demonstration of concrete evidence such as the disparity in intimate partner homicide for men versus women was met with silence. To recap for other readers, the National Homicide Monitoring Program annual report states:
“Consistent with previous NHMP annual reports, females were overrepresented as victims in intimate partner homicide (n=89; 73% of intimate partner homicides),”…

Page 11 of the VicHealth report linked to in the first line of my article shows that in general, men and women are almost equally likely to suffer violence, yet the overwhelming majority of perpetrators are men:

“In 2012, 42% of persons (aged 18 years and over) had experienced
violence since the age of 15 years by a male perpetrator, compared with
12% who had experienced violence by a female perpetrator (ABS 2013b).
men are also more likely to be the victims of violence than are women
(ABS 2013b), the difference is not large. In 2012, 49% of men aged 18
years and over reported that they had experienced violence since the age
of 15, compared with 41% of women. Most of the violence experienced by
men is accounted for by physical assault, with men being less likely
than women to be subject to sexual violence. Since the age of 15, 4.5%
of men reported experiencing sexual violence, compared with 19% of women
(ABS 2013b).”

If your response to such data is to fear that this is part of some plot to stigmatise men, and hence you denigrate the integrity of the survey, the methodology, and the institutions behind them without valid evidence or a rationale on which to base such accusations, then there is little hope of rational dialogue.

If, on the other hand, you humbly submit to follow the evidence wherever it leads with a critical but inquiring mind, then you can say with some integrity “veritas lux mea”, which is a much more noble path.

Readers will have to forgive me for not following up with further research to engage with the various claims being made in comments. But the fact is that if people are genuinely looking for the truth they shouldn’t need me to do all the heavy lifting for them.