The CEO Fiction Reading List

For years upon years, CEOs and employers (and, thus, teachers) have told us how highly they value employees’ abilities to effectively communicate in writing — and especially in plain language writing (which is even more difficult).

But, when it comes down to hiring, promoting and retaining employees, let’s be honest: The above individuals’ declarations of valuing writing is a crock. Actions don’t match words.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating anyone go out and start snatching up every available newly minted English graduate. A good 50 percent of them couldn’t write their way out of a text message. I’m merely questioning whether C-level executives and their hiring managers pay enough attention to the writing skills of employees.

More important, do they recognize good writing when they see it? I wouldn’t suggest assuming CEOs aren’t well-read or great editors. But many spend so much time focusing on their businesses they just don’t have time to spend on reading beyond what they must to manage and propel their businesses.

One supply chain manager told me reading fiction wouldn’t get me anywhere in business. The implication being that reading leadership, business and wealth-creation how-tos and industry (even if popularized) publications would. The comment haunts me because — if we’re once again brutally honest — those publications are not in most cases stables of burgeoning Great American Writers. Or International. (There are many great business writers and journalists out there. Props to them. Nor is all fiction created equal.) And don’t get me wrong: Those books and magazines and sites aren’t bad. They are written to their audience’s needs and desires. They absolutely have places on physical and digital bookshelves. Heck, I work for one such publication. But, in my position, one of my first criteria is whatever we share be at least halfway-decently written.

So, while there aren’t any business or leadership how-tos or motivational books on my list, that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t take what is offered in them.

In urging executive and hiring managers to read fiction, I am only suggesting that well-written short stories and novels not only break the monotony but also stir creativity, display the flexibility of language, bring them to the true edge of innovation: Imagination. And imagination written down can spark even more insights. Choose writers with a particular facility with language. Find novels or poetry that sing in one’s mind, and others that completely disrupt one’s view of the world, history and reality itself. Fiction may not be in your business plan, but at one time your business plan was fiction. So are tomorrow’s inventions. Novelists may not give you a clear how-to on innovation or a new product, but they may briefly warp your mind or change your perspective enough to spark your own.

My final point — as any education professional would tell you — is that in reading well-written texts, people — all people — learn how to improve their own writing, editorial capabilities and ability to identify the best communicators on their staffs and potential hires. Simply, reading makes you a better reader and a better writer. But you need to be reading well-written work.

All that said, I now present you with my suggested quick reading list:

  1. Enter completely new realities. Consider the absurd. Laugh out loud. Read stories that are only a few pages long, but make you want to continue following the characters’ lives. That’s Etgar Keret’sThe Nimrod Flipout or The Busdriver Who Wanted to be God. (Those are the two I recommend one start with.) Keret is also from Israel, which is second only to the U.S. in innovation and venture capital. So there’s that.
  2. Strategic planning. Novelists often plan their stories, though there are many who (claim to) just let their stories take them wherever they lead. But structure can boost creativity. CEOs also need to understand complex relationships and storylines, which have direct application to the workplace. So go grab a copy of The Brothers Karamazov. I’m kidding. But grab a novel — something you’ve never thought you’d make it through before but always wanted to — and give it a shot.
  3. Want to make it easy on yourself? Just subscribe to a good fiction journal — or journal that includes fiction. I recommend the Virginia Quarterly Review or The Oxford American. They both include fantastic fiction, essays and other thought-provoking pieces, but their photography is awe-inspiring (and sometimes despairing); come to your mailbox and provide a couple of months’ worth of reading material if you have little time.
  4. Pick something. Executive’s choice. What was your favorite book in high school or college? Vonnegut? On the Road? Go back and reread it. See how you’ve changed. See if you can even finish it. (If you’re thinking The Great Gatsby, you better read it quick before you see the movie.) Or find something completely different. (This does not include Steve Job’s biography. Real fiction.)

Now, obviously, the above list is completely subjective. It’s supposed to be. Note that it really only includes one or two recommendations. I don’t mean to dictate. I only offer these books, journals and ideas up in the desire to rekindle (pun only somewhat intended) CEOs’ and hiring managers’ appreciation of truly good writing.

Writing serves many purposes. Writers, many will tell you, are valuable assets. If that’s true, C-suite executives and hiring managers need to be able to recognize workers who, among other attributes, can write well. The best way to accomplish that? Read.

Also, read to your kids.

Full disclosure: I do offer writing, editing and other communications services, but this post isn’t written purely out of selfishness and I rarely do line-by-line edits on my blog posts (so please don’t point out every typo! Just the glaring ones.). I’d also be happy to recommend other great writers.


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