Being Gladwelled

Jessica Wells Cantiello wonders if she should encourage students to write in the compelling, but manipulating, style of a certain New Yorker writer.

May 14, 2015

It all started years ago, where many things begin in New York City, on public transportation. I was flipping through my New Yorker and came upon an article by Malcolm Gladwell. I had read other pieces by Gladwell here or there, but had never read his best-selling full-length books, although my brother was fond of citing them to me when trying to win an argument.

On this particular day, as I hunkered down to read Gladwell’s thoughts on professional football, I experienced a conversion of sorts. What brilliant insights! What fascinating comparisons! I’ve never even thought of it this way! As I rushed to finish the article before my stop, Upper West Side stations whirring past the windows, I became more and more convinced of Gladwell’s position. And then, just as I finished the last line, the train pulled into 59th Street. I looked up, thought about the article, and said to myself, “Wait, was he just comparing football to dogfighting!” I had been Gladwelled.

When searching for a term for my experience of reading Gladwell, I considered using “the Gladwell effect.” A quick search of this phrase returned a 2006 profile that recounts how Gladwell’s critics deride him for encouraging “lazy thinking,” and a post by writer/editor Richard Bradley who defines the Gladwell effect as describing “writers who try to imitate Gladwell's techniques in hope of attaining something near his popularity, regardless of their expertise in the relevant fields.”

Gladwell is a divisive writer in academia, in part because he is so successful. Scholars, particularly those from the social sciences, accuse him of a “lack of technical grounding” and note that his use of statistical evidence is often simplistic and sometimes misleading.

While I tend to agree with some of this criticism, my greater concern, as a writing teacher, is how Gladwell is able to so deftly manipulate an audience, and in particular, me. Even though right after I finish a Gladwell article I often identify points of disagreement or confusion, as I read I am almost always swept away by the writing. How does he do it? And more importantly, should I be teaching my students to Gladwell me? For some insight into these questions, I return to the scene of the crime: Gladwell’s 2009 New Yorker article entitled “Offensive Play.”

Gladwell starts with a tried and true New Yorker strategy: the personal profile or anecdote. One paragraph in and I’m already invested in the individual story of Kyle Turley and his poor wife. Turley’s description of his injuries also foreshadows some of the issues Gladwell will bring up later -- the expectation that players will play injured, the lack of real concern about injuries on the part of working players and staff, the fact that winning is more important than a single player’s health. These are assertions with which Gladwell agrees, but he uses his interview subject as the first mouthpiece through which to voice them.

About two pages in, Gladwell shifts direction, introducing the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal into the equation. It’s a bit disconcerting at first -- why are we talking about Michael Vick right after Kyle Turley? Because they’re both football players? Then Gladwell begins to quote at length from a sociological article about dogfighting. This is a recognizable means of invoking ethos (in effect demonstrating that he has done his reading), but the content of the quotation calls upon pathos. Four pages into this article we have just read about a dog’s life being sacrificed for sport.

Next, Gladwell exposes how doctors misdiagnosed certain patients and that those patients were suffering symptoms of dementia from having experienced repeated traumatic head injuries. This is one of the types of arguments I find most intriguing and, if done well, most persuasive in real life. The argument goes something like this: “I, you or we (depending on how presumptuous the author is) always thought that x was true. It made sense because of y and z. Well, it turns out that a (the opposite of x or a completely different idea) is true. In fact, y and z actually support a.”

In the case of this article, Gladwell himself is not actually making this type of argument; rather, he's summarizing a discovery made by Ann McKee about patients at the Veterans Hospital in Bedford, Mass. Doctors at this hospital thought that their patients were suffering from dementia because of their symptoms. It turned out, however, that postmortem brain scans showed that those very symptoms were actually indicators of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known as CTE. McKee made this interesting, counterintuitive discovery, and Gladwell told me about it. I was getting on board.

The next few pages contain a lot of statistics, as Gladwell leads us through a logos-based argument about the prevalence of CTE in former professional football players. Although both he and McKee frequently mention that more studies need to be done with larger samples, and even gesture at some other possible causes, the inclusion of the data overwhelms the cautious disclaimers. For example, Gladwell does note that “self-reported studies are notoriously unreliable instruments,” but immediately follows this assertion (in the same sentence!) with a description of how “alarming” the results of those notoriously unreliable instruments are. The inclusion of this data into the article implies that they are worth knowing, so the disclaimers are easily glanced over and forgotten.

On page eight, we’re back to dogfighting. Just as quickly, though, we’re on to a different possible comparison: stock-car racing. A descriptive paragraph later, Gladwell performs a dazzling rhetorical trick. “So what is football,” he asks us. “Is it dogfighting or is it stock-car racing?” The trick here is how Gladwell deftly imprisons the reader in an either-or scenario. We have to pick between these two analogies, which suggests that (a) these two analogies work well in discussing the issue of football injuries and (b) either one of these is the right answer: a classic false dichotomy.

For a few more pages, Gladwell details horrific injuries, again utilizing the counterintuitive argumentation model of which I am so fond. He points out that “we” have been concerned about the wrong things when thinking about football health hazards: heat exhaustion, competition, concussions. The real danger, he argues, is subconcussive hits, usually those sustained in practice settings. Like the earlier observation about misdiagnosed head injuries, I feel myself again being convinced by an argument that at first feels surprising and new but then is easily integrated into my Gladwell-influenced worldview: of course a larger number of minor hits would be more damaging than a smaller number of major hits, I think.

By page 10, although Gladwell has not yet offered a prescription for what should be done, I’m starting to suspect that he has some ideas, in part because he starts discrediting some solutions, like better gear. But then we’re back to dogfighting, this time with pathos-laden descriptions of dogs who have survived. Finally, Gladwell directly makes the comparison toward which he has been gesturing for the whole article, equating fighting dogs with human football players. Both, he suggests, are selected for and succeed because of their “gameness,” or perseverance. In his last few paragraphs, Gladwell tweaks his analogy a bit. The whole article seems to be framing players as dogs and coaches, managers, owners as the dogfighters.

But the last page of the article accuses the fans of dogfighting. It’s not the fault of individuals, those guys that encouraged Kyle Turley to keep playing, or even Turley himself, who seems to have kept going back for more. It’s the game, according to Gladwell, and even more so, it’s the fans of the game. We love football and we are fond of the players, even though we are killing them with our crazy expectations about their athletic performance. And just like that, I’d been Gladwelled.

Immediately after I put the article down, the internal yes, buts began. Yes, there are some similarities between dogfighting and football, but there are a lot of differences. Something started to bother me about comparing the players to dogs in the first place. It made it seem like they have no agency or choice in the situation at all, and I found it patronizing. The widely disparate rules of the two games also made it difficult for me to compare dogfighting to football; unlike boxing, football is a team sport focused on moving a ball across a field, not knocking one’s opponent to the ground, although that often comes with the territory. And, of course, dogfighting is predicated on an immediate fight to the death, while football is not.

Nevertheless, I was left feeling vaguely unsettled. I ultimately don’t agree that the football equates to dogfighting, but because of the article the two are paired in my mind in a way that they weren’t before. The unconventional pairing is one strategy that Gladwell uses particularly well. It’s risky, because if the pairing is too strange or the relationship too tenuous, you may lose your reader at the outset. But weird juxtaposition can also be intriguing -- it’s probably what got me to start reading this article in the first place, since I often skip articles about sports altogether. Gladwell also capitalized on something that was very topical -- the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal -- and deployed it in an unsuspected way, in effect, refiguring the villain, Vick (or at least players like him), as victims in a much more insidious scandal.

Gladwell also deftly utilizes structural spiraling, in that he alternates a number of narrative and argumentative threads, returning to them in different ways throughout the article. In this case he deploys Turley’s personal narrative, sociological studies of dogfighting, cutting-edge medical research on brain trauma and discussions with sports professionals. Reading these different types of writing in the context of each other I find it easier to forgive some of their limitations. For example, if this article was just a profile of Turley, I wouldn’t be as convinced about the danger of football to players as I am when reading his personal, individual experience in the context of the studies about players in other full-contact sports. Likewise, I may not have retained as much of the medical information without the illustration of the symptoms that Turley’s narrative provides.

How desirable is it to Gladwell one’s reader? On the one hand, when we write persuasively we want to persuade, and to be Gladwelled is, of course, to be persuaded. On the other hand, my agreement with Gladwell is often fleeting; it’s the experience of being transported by a really effective magic trick, but then immediately afterward trying to figure out the sleight of hand.

Even Gladwell’s best writing, especially in The New Yorker, follows a generic pattern that doesn’t always work for academic writing, especially the prompt-based writing I teach in my first-year writing classes. For example, the thesis is teased out over the course of the article, and the main argument often arrives at the end of essay, since long-form magazine writers are trying to get you to read the whole article. Essayists like Gladwell can afford to go off on more tangents and don’t need to cite their sources as assiduously as do college students (although I wish essayists were required to include a works-cited page). The anecdotal narratives that Gladwell cobbles together from formal interviews with vetted subjects can sometimes feel amateurish in college writing when they derive from personal experiences.

At the same time, certain aspects of this type of writing are applicable to writing in college and beyond. Gladwell’s structure is an example of one way to move beyond the categorical, list-y five-paragraph structure to which most incoming college students are wedded and consider ways of organizing ideas conceptually. He travels comfortably around and across the rhetorical triangle, employing logos, ethos and pathos. He draws his evidence from various academic disciplines, as well as current events and popular culture, which should engage a range of readers with various interests outside of the narrow topic of the essay.

Ultimately, when I use Gladwell with my students, it’s as a reminder of the relationship between narrative and argument. Err too much on the side of narrative and you’ll weave a captivating tale that might not hold together at the end. However, if you just pile on evidence without providing a narrative through line, your reader can miss the bigger, brilliant point you are trying to make.

More importantly, sharing my experience of being Gladwelled with my students models the importance of reading response in the writing classroom. So much writing development happens through reading and reflecting on what works for us as readers, but this can sometimes get lost in the intensive process of writing and revising papers. Having students share how they’ve been Gladwelled or Twained or Didioned -- in other words, manipulated, compelled or enchanted -- by a text opens up conversations about how the author does it, highlighting the choices these authors make and their awareness of audience. The hope is that when students sit down to write and revise, they think of their experience as readers when making their own writing choices.


Jessica Wells Cantiello is an assistant professor in the writing program at the University of Southern California.


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