October 5, 2006

The New York Observer notices Malcolm Gladwell has jumped the shark

Passing the Gladwell Point
By Tom Scocca

The Malcolm Gladwell Piece was an identifiable and successful form of its own: a closely reported portrait of a person or phenomenon, stretched to billboard significance on an academic or conceptual framework. It made something make sense.

So why, lately, has the Malcolm Gladwell Piece become irritating? Why does a reader flap the magazine in agitation on the subway, or go onto a blog and start castigating the author for elementary errors of fact and interpretation? Why does spending a weekend with Mr. Gladwell’s best-selling books, The Tipping Point and Blink, lead to unhappiness and a pathological fixation on writing in rhetorical questions?...

The problem with the Malcolm Gladwell Piece, in part, is that it always seems to contain phrases like “the problem with the Malcolm Gladwell Piece.” Something has happened to Mr. Gladwell’s style of argumentation over time—it has become more self-referential, till the framework dominates the portrait. Here’s Mr. Gladwell, writing recently on the question of Allen Iverson’s basketball ability: “In order to measure something you thought was fairly straightforward, you really have to take into account a series of things that aren’t so straightforward.” On pit-bull attacks: “Another word for generalization, though, is ‘stereotype,’ and stereotypes are usually not considered desirable dimensions of our decision-making lives.” On pension policy: “This is an important point.”

Meanwhile, the specifics are sliding around. Mr. Gladwell has blamed the University of Oklahoma for irrationally kicking the quarterback off its football team, when it was actually obeying an official NCAA rule. He has been caught reversing the meaning of remarks by Albert Speer on the efficacy of Allied bombing. He has been dragged into an online brawl with an Economist writer about whether or not he understands pension policy. At times, lately, Mr. Gladwell sounds like someone trying to tell other people about something he read once in a Malcolm Gladwell piece, after a few rounds of drinks...

The Tipping Point, published in 2000, was a sort of apotheosis or self-immolation of Gladwellism: It was Mr. Gladwell’s own tipping point, and it made it impossible to describe that particular phenomenon in any other way. Before the book came out, Mr. Gladwell was a well-respected byline; after, he was a full-on literary celebrity and, more impressively, a business guru...

The job of the business writer is to supply answers. So the ineffable and the absurd give way to case studies and classificatory jargon, with capital letters (Paul Revere’s ride, Mr. Gladwell writes in The Tipping Point, succeeded because of “a few Salesmen and a man with the particular genius of both a Maven and a Connector”).

Even the sentence structure has gone flat, the playful strings of clauses snipped into tidy lengths. The latter-day Gladwell uses the second person the way Mr. Rogers does, to make sure that you, the audience, are never confused about what your host is telling you. What he is telling you is this: You can understand the world, if you follow along with Malcolm Gladwell....

But the more authoritative Mr. Gladwell sets out to be, the less persuasive he is. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, his 2005 book about unconscious cognition, draws on a variety of studies about the ways that people make snap judgments, wisely and unwisely.

“Next time you meet a doctor … if you have the sense that he isn’t listening to you, that he’s talking down to you, and that he isn’t treating you with respect, listen to that feeling,” Mr. Gladwell writes, summing up one study of snippets of doctor-patient conversations. Yet that study, by the book’s own account, was prompted by the discovery that patients filed malpractice suits based on their feelings about their doctors, rather than the doctors’ error rates. [More]

As a writer gets more popular, his audience gets broader, stupider, and more worshipful. That's good for the wallet but not for the work.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

No comments: