Narratives and Competitiveness: From Bloomsday to Normal People

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By Professor John Bryson
Department of Strategy and International Business, University of Birmingham

Ulysses is one of the great novels and will remain an important landmark in the European literary canon.

The anniversary of the 16 June 1904 is known as Bloomsday. This is the day when we celebrate Leopold Bloom’s walk through the streets of Dublin. Normally, fans of James Joyce descend on Dublin on the 16 June and perambulate and cavort their way around Dublin as they follow Bloom’s walk, and those of other characters, in Joyce’s Ulysses.

We still need to celebrate Bloomsday in 2020, but those walking through Dublin will be appropriately socially distanced. Joyce’s epic novel makes me think of many things including the importance of the construction and projection of narratives by companies, organisations, countries, and city-regions. At the moment the European Commission is projecting one narrative regarding the EU/UK trade negotiations and the UK a competing narrative. Across Westminster there are competing narratives regarding social distancing and ultimately one narrative will become dominant.

Successful companies develop and project coherent, memorable, and inimitable narratives. All successful goods and services are enveloped in narratives. Narratives may emerge by accident or be created, shaped, and manipulated. Some of my journal papers write themselves, or appear to write themselves, whilst others have a much more troubled development process. One of my more challenging papers explored how place-based images, meanings and associations are incorporated into products, services and business models. These associations emerge via chance or by intent.

For Dublin, the associations that have developed around Bloomsday emerged by chance. Joyce’s novel might have been ignored or be forgotten. This was not the case as Ulysses is celebrated as a landmark of modernist literature. The importance of the novel is reflected on Dublin and Dublin’s identity is enhanced. There are direct and indirect benefits. The direct include tourists who come to experience Bloom’s walk. The indirect includes attracting foreign direct investment (FDI). Flows of FDI are partly shaped by awareness of a locality and Joyce’s work contributes to raising global awareness of Dublin.

It is impossible to think about city-regions, or national competitiveness, without thinking about cultural associations – music, art, and literature. For Birmingham, this includes Peaky Blinders and the ways in which this period crime drama has shaped wider understanding of this city.

A key issue is the duration of the association. Thus, Ulysses is one of the great novels and will remain an important landmark in the European literary canon. Ulysses was initially issued as a serial in The Little Review, an American journal, between March 1918 and December 2020 and was published in book form on 2 February 1922. Thus, the association between Dublin and Ulysses has evolved over the last one hundred years and will continue to evolve.

Dublin benefits from many literary associations. On 25 January 2019. The University of Birmingham launched a strategic research and education partnership with Trinity College Dublin (TCD). TCD is mentioned in Ulysses. In 2018, a TCD alumnus, Sally Rooney, published her second novel – Normal People. This became an American best-seller and was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. Normal People is set in TCD. On 26 April 2020, a screen adaptation of the novel was released on BBC Three in the UK and was subsequently released in the US on 29 April.

Normal People adds to Dublin’s global identity and enhances the reputation of Trinity College Dublin (TCD). This will encourage more people to visit the city and to visit and study at TCD. There will also be an impact on TCD’s position in the global rankings of universities. All these impacts are based around an enhancement in Dublin’s global identity.

Narratives matter. We all construct, and project an individual narrative based around the projection of an identity – who we are and how we want other people to read us. Companies engage in a similar process as do city-regions. Here it is important to appreciate that this type of narrative construction might be planned or be serendipitous. For Dublin, Normal People adds another layer of literary association to the city that has been intensified by the screen adaptation. These types of place-based associations enhance the visibility of some places compared to other places.

A Covid-19 literary canon is emerging which will provide a record of 2020. Novelists are adopting two approaches to Covid-19. They are either embracing it and developing Covid-19 related narratives or deciding to ignore this period. My own view is that Covid-19 calls for another Ulysses, or a novel that has within it a focus on a stream-of-consciousness.

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