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There is a story from the cold war that while the CIA employed game theory and the insights of psychologists to gain greater understanding of their enemy and how they might act – and react – to initiatives; the KGB used a writer, Dostoevsky to accomplish the same goals. The reason was elegantly simple in that the great novelist provided profound insights and analysis into people, characters, their motivations and how they might act in stressful times. Apposite stuff the cold war

The anecdote resonated with me because over the last few years when I meet someone a typical comment to me is, “I don’t read novels, but my wife does…” It seems men haven’t the time, nor inclination, and certainly don’t see much use-value, the real dollars, in fiction. Superficially, at least, that seems correct.

By way of response I have expressed the view that reading fiction will provide more practical insights than the management techniques, and most management courses that are available. Some fiction, not all, it is true, will indirectly cover things like tactics and negotiations, the strategic skills associated with reading other people’s intentions. It’s game theory without the math.

Writers are strategists, they have to be: to write a book and create a plot with vivid characters requires analytical skills, oversight; also depth and range that is applicable in other areas, such as business. Readers could draw from those abilities and apply them.

If fiction was seen in this vocational light it might serve harried executives who relegate it to vacation time, if at all.

Although the KGB ultimately lost that protracted undeclared war it was not over intellectual competence or theory. They played the game well and skillfully. On a cost per cost basis a few hundred hardbacks of Dostoevsky is much better value than all the consultants, psychologists and mathematicians the CIA budgeted. The obvious question is that if the game had been played equally between adversaries, which American novelist could have contended against Dostoevsky?

Guy Cranswick
16 January 2012