Entry 5: Storytelling as the 'Other' (Part 1)

One of the questions I still haven’t fully resolved in terms of my thesis outline is: How am I going to read the literature? What am I really hoping to achieve and demonstrate in my analysis of the literary texts? And I think what’s really important about this section, is that I write what I want to write. Essentially, everything I write should be authentic for and meaningful to me as well as the reader.

When I was desperately trying to finish my research project last semester (and yes, surprisingly for me, it was rather last minute!), one of the parts that frustrated me and I struggled with the most was applying the leadership theory to the short story. As I was writing that section I knew deep down that it wasn’t what I wanted to write. It didn’t really have any meaning for me, as both author and reader, and subsequently, it felt rather contrived (which showed!). One of my other key concerns was that by reading a cultural work in this way, especially since 'leadership' was a secondary concern to racial issues in the short story, I was reducing it to fit a neat model that was too reductive and subsequently, overly simplistic. 

I’ve noticed that when I am writing merely to achieve a grade, no matter how technically good the piece is, it will never be excellent. In these cases, there is always a feeling of stiltedness.  Disconnection. Disengagement. No moments of epiphany. The ‘so what’ remaining frustratingly elusive.

So I feel that more than anything, I want what I write about for, say, The Lifeboat or The Invention of Wings, to be engaging, persuasive, provocative and authentic/genuine/true for me as well as others. I think I’ve been getting too caught up in the idea that I have to completely divorce literary analysis from my subjective ‘interpretative’ readings of the texts. That my analysis has to be strikingly precise and wholly relevant to business leaders – raising questions which will instantly encourage reflective practice and, ultimately, ‘change' people for the better. And this isn’t a bad goal. In fact, this is what I believe good literature has the power to do. But is it the right or only objective for this thesis, at this particular point in time?

I’ve been looking back at some of my favourite English literature essays, particularly the ones concerned with thematic analysis and sociological criticism, trying to decipher what exactly made them so compelling (and why I loved writing them!). For example, in my essay “‘Voicing’ and ‘Identifying’ Sexual Violence in the Congo and Iraq” the problem/issue presented is political: “In patriarchal societies and cultures, the battle for domination and nation-wide control is played out on the powerless and faceless female body.” But women’s literature has the power to speak about this issue in a different, more inclusive and expressive way than purely factual reports or non-fiction ever can. Through the medium of theatre two female authors, Heather Raffo in 9 Parts of Desire and Lynn Nottage in Ruined, are able to give the previously ‘faceless female bodies’ powerful new identities and ‘voices,’ freeing them to tell their own stories and become more than just another rape statistic.

Similarly, in another of my essays titled: “The Struggle for Author/ity: Interrogating the Colonising Acts of Writing and Reading in J.M. Coetzee’s Foe,” I investigate the novel’s overarching concerns with the colonising activity of writing and reading and subsequently, the ensuing power struggle for authorship and identity. The main thrust of the essay was to consider how Foe engaged with the ‘reader’ and involved him/her in the reading and writing process. Rather than separating ideas and theory from close textual analysis, I considered the methods Coetzee used to convey his message and the affect this has on the reader. By writing in metatextual form, using opposing binaries and changing narrative patterns throughout the novel, Coetzee places the reader in a unique position, spurring him/her on to question the very nature of language and the ideologies which inform his/her own beliefs on patriarchy, colonialism, feminism and race.

So what does this mean for me? How can I potentially harness this ‘method’ of analysis in my thesis?

In The Literary Theory Toolkit (2011), Rapaport explains that in the application of a critical approach to literary analysis, ‘examples’ or selected texts/narratives should work in such a way that they help explain and develop a theory that to many people makes no sense without a ‘key’: “The theory should illuminate a work, and a work should illuminate a theory” (p. 9). Rapaport goes on to describe “art’s purpose,” noting that ‘art’ has the potential to “revolutionise our perception in such a way that we won’t see the world as we ordinarily do. In this sense, it is as if literary language itself were a sort of revolutionary hero that reforms the fallen (automatic, habitual) thinking” (p. 15).

In some ways this is very similar to what Badaracco attempts to achieve in Questions of Character, particularly with regards to what it means and requires to be/come a more ethical and moral leader in the twenty-first century. However, his analysis of classic literature tends to lack depth in terms of leadership theory, as well as focusing more on ‘great man’ constructs of leader = leadership. This is most likely because the book is geared towards mainstream audiences who want a ‘practical’ step-by-step guide as opposed to an academically rigorous approach.

However, by thoughtfully incorporating theory on women’s leadership with storytelling (or re-telling?) and textual/rhetorical analysis, I believe the novels/plays/short stories I select will be able to 'voice' something important about contemporary women’s leadership and followership. Especially since good literature can articulate alternatives to dominant worldviews by making thought as felt and feeling as thought (Williams, 1977).

Rather than being purely reflective (as I tried to do in my research project), my role (as I tread the fine line between leadership/management facilitator and literary analyst) should be to eloquently summarise, illuminate, analyse, and provide questions which give female leaders and aspiring leaders a ‘key’ which will help them both understand leadership from a different perspective (the voice of the ‘Other’) and encourage meaningful reflective practice. Creating ‘space’ for the reader to engage in new ways with women’s leadership issues and “working to relate the extraordinariness of imaginative literature to the ordinariness of cultural processes” (Filmer, 2003, p. 199).

I will leave it at that for now (along with another inspiring quote, this time by Ursula K. Le Guin!) as I have a whole lot more reading to do on storytelling and narrative methods…Part 2 will follow as soon as I have completed the next stage of research!

References:

Filmer, P. (2003). “Structures of feeling and socio-cultural formations: The significance of literature and experience to Raymond Williams's sociology of culture.” The British Journal of Sociology, 54, 199-219.

Rapaport, H. (2011). The literary theory toolkit: A compendium of concepts and methods. Chichester, UK. John Wiley & Sons Limited.

Williams, R. (1977). “Structures of Feeling.” Marxism and Literature. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP.