Why bankers should write novels

An Army man, a regulator, a banker, a director. Pinstripes and sensible grey hair. Harrison Young is not the most obvious candidate to write novels his publisher describes as “an elegant mixture of humour, sex and wisdom”. So BlueNotes asked Harrison, should more bankers be novelists?

"The best risk analysis is narrative."
Harrison Young, Company director and novelist

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Four reasons. The first is that it will improve your presentation skills – both your prose and the thinking behind it.

The business world is awash in Power Point slides that try to convey ideas with arrows and pictures. When there is writing, it is mostly abstract phrases. This is a pity because the old technology – complete sentences – worked quite well.

Novels traditionally require sentences. Sentences require a noun and a verb and a sense of direction. They can be simple or elaborate, subtle or direct, so long as they advance the story. If a novelist doesn’t know where he’s going, his sentences deteriorate immediately. Writing novels will teach you that. Knowing what clear thinking sounds like is like having a compass in the fog.

Writing novels will teach you that there has to be a story. We humans are programmed to want one. It is how we organise reality. If you make your living lending money or trading bonds or writing insurance you care about remote but plausible contingencies. To a novelist, remote but plausible contingencies are plots. The best risk analysis is narrative.

Clear thinking is also evidenced by fresh and accurate words. Business writing is littered with clichés and euphemisms. Writing a novel in your spare time should get you out of the habit of saying “restructure” when you mean firing people, or citing “synergies” when you don’t really have a plan. Finding the courage to be honest will clear your brain – and get you listened to.

"If you live in a cold climate, warmth is a drug. So being sick of life, I went to Arabia. It was possible for a woman to do that then.

Begin with the heat, It is as if you are being fired. The celestial potter has put you in the kiln, and you are about to assume the shape by which etetrnity will know you. Thought ceases. Immobility is worship. It is no accident the Arabs invented zero.

When the wind is from the south, the desert posseses you. Grit accumulates in your silverware drawer, in your underwear drawer, between your teeth. It is forty-five degrees Celsius and men walk the street wrapped like Arctic explorers, trying to escape the sand. I would never have guessed at its relentlessness.

Perfect is tangible. Women are invisible. Five times a day a man shouts from a tower that God is great. 'Allahu akbar', he says. One comes in the end to agree."

This is an excerpt from the novel 'Submission' by Harrison Young, published by Jane Curry Publishing.

The second benefit of writing novels is that it teaches you about human nature. When you’re making up a story, you have to decide what’s believable. Would anyone do that? What sort of person would do that? Working on a novel allows you to stretch boundaries and experiment without damaging anyone.

Novelists become connoisseurs of motivation and deceit. So do bankers. If you’re considering making a term loan, you want to think about what the borrower’s agenda is – and not just what the chief executive says he plans to do. Writing a novel with an unreliable narrator will show you what people are capable of.

Bankers need to know what people are capable of – they mustn’t be starry eyed about humanity – but they also have to assess particular individuals. Successful bankers turn out to be good judges of character.

Bankers will tell you, or they used to before the sub-prime madness, that character is more important than any of the other “c’s” on which credit is based – which as I remember it were cash flow, capital, covenants and collateral. How will this borrower behave under stress? How hard will he work to pay you back? What tiny behavioral clues can you spot? And if your customer is a giant corporation, what sort of organisation is it – for the personalities of companies tend not to change over time, even as senior executives come and go.

Novelists think about the same issues, but instead of spotting clues, they invent them. How to suggest cruelty or self-discipline, ambition or decency – but without being heavy-handed about it? What trivial events in early chapters might foreshadow the concluding crisis? How would the hero’s friends and the villain’s associates describe them in casual conversations early on? Some famous critic said that a novelist’s objective, in winding up his tale, is to “surprise convincingly.” Bankers generally don’t like surprises. They deploy the same skills to predict outcomes.

I should mention, as a further recommendation of novel-writing, that it is a portable and inexpensive hobby. No special equipment is required. I started scribbling on a yellow pad in 1981 when I was stuck in Bahrain for six months and realised that the alternative was becoming an alcoholic. A laptop makes it easier to move paragraphs around. If you’ve had to do that with scissors and tape, writing on a computer is like putting on swim fins. Twenty years ago composition in Asian airports required sitting on the floor next to an electrical outlet. Now, of course, you can plug in everywhere. Convenience has become my third argument for writing fiction.

Finally, civilization. Novels create a world. They can go on for a thousand pages if that’s what the author chooses, piling up detail, introducing dozens of characters and sub-plots, weaving in historical events, philosophising at leisure. Not everyone has the time and dedication to go on that long, but even a short novel can convey the flavor and texture and imbedded values of a place or period or group of friends. In some ways, that’s the most beautiful thing a novelist can do.

"Since he was not a banker, spoke English, and had something to do with the local government, Philip was a prize."

This is an excerpt from the novel 'Submission' by Harrison Young, published by Jane Curry Publishing.

Bankers care about culture too. They create and nurture the culture of their institution by having definite ways of doing things – rules, formal procedures, informal traditions, turns of phrase. Some ways of taking risks work better than others. Style matters. Habits protect. Culture is destiny.

Writing a novel means finding a style of your own, seeing the world you live in through the lens of the world you create. It expands your consciousness. It can make you wise. I recommend it.

Some people, of course, find writing painful. A hobby should give pleasure. If the right words won’t come, if self-confident sentences don’t present themselves when you sit at your desk and wait for inspiration, don’t torture yourself. You can obtain many of the same benefits by reading novels. I could give you some entertaining suggestions, in fact.

Harrison Young is a company director, the former chairman of NBNCO, a former banker and regulator.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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