My MBA thesis, finished in 2019, was inspired by a dispute between author Lionel Shriver and Penguin Random House UK about diversity. I submitted it almost two years ago, so my views have evolved, but this is the first time I have shared it online.
Mass media, including publishing, now rival the state and religion in their ability to introduce new ideas and shape public opinion. This power can be used for good or ill.
Publishing is the business of telling stories. In his seminal essay, “Story”, screenwriting lecturer Robert McKee cited story as the world’s most trusted medium, writing:
“Traditionally humankind has sought the answer to Aristotle’s question (how should a human being lead their life) from the four wisdoms – philosophy, science, religion, art – taking insight from each to bolt together a liveable meaning. But today who reads Hegel or Kant without an exam to pass? Science, once the great explicator, garbles life with complexity and perplexity. Who can listen without cynicism to economists, sociologists, politicians? Religion, for many, has become an empty ritual that masks hypocrisy. As our faith in traditional ideologies diminishes, we turn to the source we still believe in: the art of story.
The world now consumes films, novels, theatre and television in such quantities and with such ravenous hunger that the story arts have become humanity’s prime source of inspiration, as it seeks to order chaos and gain insight into life.”
McKee’s assertion is backed up by the history of the past century.
In 1915 “The Birth of a Nation”, one of the most influential films ever made, stigmatised interracial mating and glorified the Ku Klux Klan. This preceded the most successful period in the organization’s history. The director’s follow-up, “Intolerance”, tried to address some of the criticisms, but by then, the damage had already been done.
Among media, publishing can have a particularly strong impact on the way people think. Studies have shown that daily news is relatively ineffective in changing people’s views or guiding decisions. By contrast, published books have been known to inspire major social changes. The World Economic Forum has cited Robert Tressell’s “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” as an ‘integral part of the drive for social reform at the start of the last century’.