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The Hope of Audacity

January 27, 2009

I am sick of reading about Malcolm Gladwell’s hair.

Sure, The New Yorker writer has funny hair. It has been big. Very big. It is audacious hair, hair that dares you not to notice it; hair that has been mentioned in far too many reviews. Malcolm Gladwell’s hair is its own thing.

Which is only appropriate, since in his writing, Gladwell has always gone his own way. But he’s been doing it long enough, and so well, and has made so much money, that some folks feel it’s time to trim him down to size. That hair is now seen as uppity.

Gladwell is a mere journalist. He’s not shy, and like many children of academics, he is not intimidated by eggheads. He does none of his own primary research, and instead scours academic journals to find interesting ideas -- he collects experiments and experimenters. He is a translator and a synthesizer, and comes up with catchy, sprightly titled theories to explain what he has seen. Some have called him a parasite. He has called himself a parasite.

It seems to me there’s always been a bit of snarkiness attached to discussions of Gladwell’s work. This is often the case for books that have become commercially successful, which is something that seems particularly to stick in the collective academic craw. There is a weird hostility in the reviews of Gladwell’s books that is directed not at the big-haired guy himself who, like a puppy, nips at the heels of academics and then relishes the opportunity to render their work into fluid, transparent prose, but toward those many people who have made Gladwell famous: his readers. No one matches the caustic condescension of Richard Posner, who said, in a review of Gladwell’s Blink, that “it’s a book for people who don’t read books.”

The reviews of Outliers, Gladwell’s latest book, show that even a New Yorker writer can go too far. People are now attacking Malcolm Gladwell as a kind of brand. The critiques boil down to a few things, one of which is that he doesn’t take into account evidence that refutes his theories. In other words, he’s not doing careful scholarship. But we all know that even careful scholarship is a game of picking and choosing -- it just includes more footnotes acknowledging this. And Gladwell never pretends to be doing scholarship.

Gladwell is also accused of being too entertaining. He takes creaky academic work and breathes Frankensteinian life into it. He weaves anecdotes together, creating a tapestry that builds to an argument that seems convincing. This, some reviewers have claimed, is like perpetuating fraud on the (non-academic) reading public: because Gladwell makes it so much fun to follow him on his intellectual journey, he’s going to convince people of things that aren’t provably, academically true. He will lull the hoi polloi into thinking they’re reading something serious.

Which is, of course, the most common complaint about Gladwell: He’s not serious enough. He’s having too much fun playing with his ideas. And, really, you can’t be Serious when you’re raking in so much coin. Anyone who gets paid four million bucks for a book that mines academic work -- and not necessarily the stuff that is agreed to be Important -- is going to become a target. His speaking fees are beyond the budgets of most colleges. In this way, his career is now similar to that of David Sedaris, who can command an impressive audience and still be dissed by the literary folks. Everyone who’s anyone knows that you can’t sell a lot of books and be a serious writer. Just ask Jonathan Franzen. Or Toni Morrison.

I don’t see Gladwell as a social scientist-manqué, or a philosopher wannabe. Instead, I read him more like an essayist. I think of his books as well-written, research-packed, extended essays. Let me show you the evils of imperialism by telling you a story about the time in Burma when I was forced to shoot an elephant. Let’s look at this (bad) academic prose and think about the relationship between politics and the English language. But instead of using his own experiences, he builds on work done by others. He uses a wry, quirky approach and blithely ignores the received wisdom and pieties of academe. He doesn’t seek out the researcher who’s highly regarded within her field; he looks for people who are doing things he finds interesting.

Gladwell reminds me of the kind of student I knew in college, the nerd who takes weird and arcane courses and then rushes from the lecture hall excited about some idea the professor has mentioned in passing and goes straight to the library to pursue it himself. He stays up all night talking about it, and convincing you that even though you were in the same class, and heard the same reference, you have somehow missed something. Maybe not something big, but at least something really, really cool.

Perhaps I have more trust in readers than to believe that they can be so easily bought off by a good story. And I wish that academics, instead of pillorying Gladwell for being good at translating complicated ideas, would study the way he does it and apply some portion of his method to their own work: He makes mini trade books of monographs. Surely this is a lesson worth learning. He uses the narrative art of the magazine writer to animate ideas. He profiles theories the way Gay Talese or Joan Didion did celebrities.

The audacity Gladwell shows in his writing, connecting seemingly disparate things and working hard, yet with apparent effortlessness, to make the ideas engaging, gives me hope for the future of books. It makes me feel better to see folks buying Gladwell rather than the swimmer Michael Phelps’s memoir or vampire novels -- not that there’s anything wrong with that. Yet this same audacity is what gets Gladwell into hot water with academics. He’s not supposed to do this.

Unless you are an aged physicist, you don’t really get to write books that “purport to explain the world.” You can, of course, try to explicate tiny portions of it. Science writers like James Gleick and Jonathan Weiner can go a lot further than most scientists in terms of making arcane principles understandable to the Joe the Plumbers of the reading world and no one gets bent of out shape. Perhaps it’s because of the assumption that scientists, with a few notable (often British) exceptions, are not supposed to be able to write books that normal people can read. Social scientists and historians are, however, expected to be able to know what is interesting and important about their work and present it to the public. Brand name thinkers like Susan Sontag and Martha Nussbaum can take on big ideas. But these people are experts; journalists shouldn’t try this at home.

What I love about Gladwell is that his writing is like his hair. You can see it as arrogant or scary (he writes about being stopped more frequently by cops when he had a big afro), or you can see it as playful and audacious. This is why, of course, so many reviews mention it; he has the right hair for his work.

One final, dour complaint about Gladwell has to do with his relentless cheeriness. He thinks that people are basically good, though he understands that sometimes circumstances aren’t. I can’t abide high-brow literary novelists who trash fiction that “cops out” with a happy ending. Maybe I’m hopelessly low-brow: I still love Jane Austen and Shakespeare’s comedies. The academic response to most things is generally: it’s more complicated than that. And sure, much of the time it is. But if something’s artfully crafted, I’m willing to cut the author some slack. I don’t ever expect to be thoroughly persuaded of anything; I’m characterologically skeptical and like to do the thinking on my own. Gladwell’s books invite me into a conversation. I think that’s part of the job of a good book.

For me, reading Malcolm Gladwell’s books is like watching Frank Capra movies. Just because they make you feel good and keep you entertained doesn’t mean that they’re not doing valuable work or tackling hard and real issues and ideas. Sure, someone else could have handled it differently. George Bailey might have finally committed suicide; the bank in Bedford Falls could have asked for a government bailout. But right now, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to read books that are a little more hopeful. And yes, audacious.

Bio

Rachel Toor teaches in the MFA program at Eastern Washington University. She writes a monthly column for The Chronicle of Higher Education, and her most recent book is Personal Record: A Love Affair With Running. Her Web site is www.racheltoor.com.

 

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