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Inside the mind of Jane Gleeson-White

Recently, we sat down with Overland fiction editor, Jane Gleeson-White, to pick her brain about her latest book, Double Entry.

Double entryQ: Overland readers know you as a fiction editor. Most literary types avoid both maths and economics like the devil does holy water. How did you develop and maintain such a diversity of interests?

A: I’ve always had wide-ranging interests and I think most literary types do, but perhaps my passion for maths and economics is less common (although I know others with similar interests). I’ve secretly loved maths and economics since I first met them at school, but my first love was always literature. After studying literature at university, I gave into the lure of economics and did an economics degree, studying maths-based economics and political economy. As for how I maintain my interests: by reading. I’m always reading.

Q: Double Entry is structured around the life and work of Luca Pacioli, a remarkably talented renaissance mathematician. They say that anyone who writes biography either falls in love with or comes to hate their subject. I know that your book is not a conventional biography but did you have that experience?

A: Hah! Yes, I did – the falling in love one. I’m not in love with Luca Pacioli any more (although I’m still fascinated by him), but the diary I kept in Italy while researching his life tells me that I did fall in love. When I first glimpsed ‘the white marble figure of a monk’ across a square and realized with shock and excitement that it was Fra Luca Pacioli, I was moved to tears. I wrote: ‘There it seemed was the man himself, who’d been obsessing me for at least two years and who’d been on my mind for many more. I felt as if he’d been waiting for me to come.’

We’re talking about a marble statue – of a man dead for almost 500 years. Such are the delusions of writers. But I think you have to fall madly for your subject, to carry you through the long hours of research. Although the more I researched Pacioli’s life, the more fascinated I became, especially after discovering that he was Leonardo da Vinci’s constant companion, taught him maths, collaborated with him on two books and was in Milan when Leonardo painted the Last Supper.

Q: Merchants and commerce have been around for a long, long time. How did traders think about what they were doing prior to Pacioli’s intervention? What did the new type of book-keeping make possible and what did it supplant?

A: We don’t really know how traders thought about what they were doing immediately before the double-entry system emerged in northern Italy around 1300 (and which Pacioli codified and published in his maths encyclopedia in 1494) because very few records from feudal Europe have survived. Barter was the main mode of exchange and people lived largely on what they or their village could produce, although they did record loans using tally sticks.

But courtesy of the Crusades, from around 1100 there was an economic boom in the city states of northern Italy which spawned a wealth of new business ventures. While the new enterprises remained modest, merchants could keep track of business in their heads or in simple narrative diary entries like ‘On XII November I sold a sack of pepper to Piero in Pisa for one florin’. But as extensive trade and credit networks developed across Europe, Italian merchants devised more precise ways of recording their business transactions, which were perfected in Venice and became known as the Venetian method – or double entry.

What was different about this system – which spread across Europe thanks to Pacioli’s treatise, hence his ‘intervention’ – was that it allowed merchants to calculate increases and decreases in their wealth or ‘estate’, recorded in their capital account, at the end of every venture (say a shipment of wool from the Cotswolds to Florence). In other words, it allowed them to calculate that driver of capitalism: profit (or loss).

Q: You suggest that double-entry accounting has not only shaped the way business operates but has, in some respects, provided a vocabulary for modernity. Could you explain that?

A: Yes, I discovered that through its power of calculating changes in capital, double entry has not only shaped the way we’ve done business over the last 700 years but has spawned the language of the modern world and is arguably the progenitor of capitalism itself. By ‘language of the modern world’ I mean the language of Hindu-Arabic numbers denominated in money that governs the global economy. This language is made possible by double entry, through the accounts it generates for corporations and, since the Second World War, through the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) accounts it generates for nations. It gives rise to the cost-benefit calculations that rule our daily lives, from our governments, schools, universities, hospitals and entertainment, to the decisions made by corporations, for example, those made by Coles and Woolworths that govern the way we shop and eat. The language of double entry is now so ubiquitous we struggle to imagine it any other way.

Q: You conclude by arguing that the conceptual limits, and political consequences, of that way of seeing the world are becoming more and more apparent. What are some of the alternatives?

A: I think the main consequences of the way we’ve constructed our world through double entry can be seen in the periodic financial collapses that have plagued capitalist economies since the rise of the corporation in the nineteenth century (which made double entry legally required) and which are now paid for in money by taxpayers and shareholders (including all Australian workers with superannuation) and in other ways by us all; and in the destruction of the planet, which the system is designed to encourage because it treats most of the earth’s natural wealth as free.

As for alternatives, I think the Occupy Movement gets it right with its ‘People before Profits’ slogan, which means to me that we have to challenge the corporate form of doing business. Corporations put profits before everything else, often including human lives, the lives of animals and the environment.

The need to challenge – abolish – corporate capitalism would come as no surprise to Overland readers. But I was surprised to find that even some prominent accountants also think this way, because the complexities of the modern multinational corporation in a 24/7 global electronic economy make it impossible to account for. The so-called ‘transparency’ that corporate accounts are supposed to guarantee and which supposedly ensures that markets function efficiently can no longer be achieved, or even aspired to. So the model is fatally flawed, even on its own terms.

And we have to stop being beholden to the senseless idea of ‘economic growth’. What does ‘economic growth’ mean? It means increases in the GDP as generated by double entry. It means that our leaders across the political spectrum and across the planet are geared to ensuring GDP goes up. And GDP goes up when we cut down trees, buy cigarettes, pay the chemotherapy for lung cancer, pay for the petrol we use sitting in cars and buses in peak-hour traffic, pay for Ritalin, junk food, hospital bills for obesity and diabetes, build weapons of mass destruction, pay the costs of environmental destruction.

I think the work being done in Bolivia and elsewhere on enshrining the rights of nature in law is one promising way into a new world, one in which the power of corporations and economic development is challenged.

Q: A lot of people who read this blog are writers themselves. Can you tell us something about the process of writing this book? How long did it take? Was it something you worked on constantly or was it in fits and starts? How did you integrate the formidable about of research involved into a very readable narrative? Is there anything you would have done differently?

I took three years to write Double Entry. I delivered the manuscript two years after signing the contract in July 2008 and the editorial process took a year, on and off. For two years I worked on it constantly and I mean night and day, seven days a week. I was obsessed, completely absorbed, fascinated by every new thing I uncovered. And because I had a contract, I had a delivery date, which added pressure to the way I worked. It also gave me an advance which allowed me to write full-time for those two years.

In the third year, during the editing, I started a PhD and became fiction editor of Overland, which meant my work time could no longer be devoted exclusively to Double Entry. This was an excellent development. It forced me away from my manuscript and gave me some distance on it, which is crucial for the editorial process.

As for making it readable, I was incredibly lucky to have a brilliant publisher, Jane Palfreyman, and three extremely talented editors, the astute Ali Lavau for the structural edit, Clara Finlay my extraordinary managing editor and copyeditor, and Aziza Kuypers, who redefined proofreading. If my finished book is readable, it’s thanks to them.

And no, actually I don’t think I would have done anything differently. (Although my friends and family might say otherwise!)

Hear Jane speak tomorrow night at the Overland end-of-year launch, 6pm at Chez Regine.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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