July 15, 2024

Off the Shelf: Compelling Tales, Rarely Told Well

Let me be the first to say that there are many exceptions — “Greed and Glory on Wall Street,” “Liar’s Poker” and “Den of Thieves” come to mind. Many fine authors are making an effort to tell great business stories. But of the sprawling mass of books that spill across my desk, far too many just aren’t very good.

The problems are as varied as the books themselves; enumerating them could take an entire page of this newspaper. Some are too technical, some not technical enough. Some topics are hopeless: I’m not sure anyone can shape the Greek debt crisis into a narrative an American would read.

Some authors aren’t able to gain access to the business people they chronicle, and thus produce books that feel incomplete. Some don’t know how to tell a story. Some don’t even try. Some books just plain put me to sleep.

I co-wrote my first business book in 1990 — it did O.K. — and ever since, I’ve wondered why so few take flight. There are theories, the kind business writers will discuss after a couple of beers but generally refrain from debating in public.

For one thing, these books aren’t easy to create. Businesses, and especially American corporations, offer scads of compelling human dramas, the vast majority of which go untold, even unnoticed. It’s the corporate world’s zeal for secrecy — and the tendency of companies to avoid publicity they can’t control — that makes these tales tough to find and even tougher to tell.

The difficulty of spinning a good business yarn, however, doesn’t fully explain quality issues. One problem for the business reader is that too many of the authors aren’t gifted writers; they are chief executives, professors and experts in their field, and the lack of professional craftsmanship shows.

A lot of business books I see are written by consultants and others who I suspect seek to use the books as giant business cards, a way of garnering attention, or worse, speaking engagements.

But the root problem, I’ve long sensed, isn’t the amateurs, it’s the professionals — those of us who write about business for a living.

It’s an open secret that many business journalists didn’t set out in that direction. I know I didn’t. Like me, many of my peers stumbled into the field by opportunity or accident and learned the ins and outs of the corporate world on the fly. (When I joined The Wall Street Journal, they had to explain to me the difference between revenue and profit.) For some writers, business journalism remains a ghetto they wouldn’t mind fleeing.

Yes, there are many contented business writers. But the number of e-mails I have received from those seeking advice on how to escape to broader horizons indicate that many are far from satisfied with their lot.

And therein lies the theory that dares not speak its name: Could it be that business journalism has not attracted the best and the brightest? There are many good writers out there, to be sure, but as a whole I’ve never felt that the business journalists compare favorably to those who follow politicians, serial killers, even football players.

Seriously, if you had to choose between covering the White House and pestering some zipper-lipped P.R. drone at Google or Intel for a quote on their latest earnings, which would you pick?

Airing this notion won’t win me any popularity contests, I know, but it’s a theory I can’t ignore.

I’m eager to hear what you think, by the way. Maybe I’ve just missed the really good books this year. What’s the best business book of 2011 so far? If you have a candidate, e-mail me at sunbiz@nytimes.com.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=3e91a70f3e89ce062da3de37dd62bbcc

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