On being a novelist as well as an economist


“Economics shows how societies function. Writing fiction gives them meaning.” I find it fun living in parallel universes -- the fictional world and the real one - and being able to step in and out of each.

Of course creating a fictional world is hard work. Very hard work. And work that requires the exercise of logic as well as inspiration. Although the fictional world might allow the imagination a free rein, it does need to have a structure to it, at least as I see it. Just as economics does. And for me each activity represents an escape, or a means of putting the other into perspective.

In many ways creative writing is different to economics. When writing fiction you can be less precise. You can be more poetic. You can be emotional. You can let the intuition that you normally suppress come pouring out as soon as you pick up a pencil or start tapping on the keyboard, so that the act of writing is a release from the day-to-day business of living. Sometimes it’s actually an escape; for example after a day that hasn’t gone according to plan, a day that’s lasted forever and left you feeling wrung out.

Yet economists also need writing skills. Economics is a very precise discipline, requiring the exercise of logic and quantitative skills. But it’s also a social science, involving the study of human beings and the analysis of economic and social interactions. The academic papers that make the biggest contributions in economics not only analyse an important issue and do so in a creative and insightful way, but they also tell a good narrative. Even the self-styled high priests and priestesses of economics, the economic theorists, cannot get their ideas across without being able to construct a narrative around their economic modeling. The best theory papers are those with insightful modeling that also tells a good story.

The eminent economist John Maynard Keynes famously stated, in his obituary of Alfred Marshall, that the ‘master-economist … must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher—in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought.’ Keynes, John M. 1924. “Alfred Marshall, 1842-1924.”The Economic Journal 34 (135): 311-372.

Academic economists these days tend to collaborate, so that they can pool their skills at story-telling and at quantitative analysis and at historical understanding. (And they are also learning to drop gendered pronouns where appropriate.) But it is still the case that the gap between fiction-writing and economics is not as great as some people might imagine.

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