Malcolm Gladwell Is Underrated
There, I said it
I know - it’s like proposing The Beatles are underrated. Malcolm Gladwell is the king of non-fiction writing and publishing. His new book is a million-seller lock. His writing is referenced hundreds of times a day in newspapers, magazine articles, talk shows, boardrooms and bars. He could pay off the national debt of a small Latin American country with the proceeds of his annual speaking tour.
But sometimes, popularity can obscure achievement, and such is the case with Gladwell (by the way, The Beatles are underrated, but that’s for another day).
Among our tablet-toting, Foreign Policy-reading, Foucault-citing cultural elites, Gladwell’s name is rarely mentioned without a hint of ironising disdain. Everyone reads him, but it’s just not cool to admit you’re a fan.Over the years I’ve heard or read various versions of these sentiments:
“Well I suppose that’s just the Malcolm Gladwell version (of a complex idea).”
“It’s the kind of glib formula pioneered by Malcolm Gladwell.”
“Yeah, Gladwell? I find him a little…(trite/superficial/too simplistic for my own immensely sophisticated sensibility); I prefer to read (insert name of obscure economist/neuroscientist who writes infinitely duller books).”
When lists of “Most Influential Thinkers” are put together, Gladwell rarely makes the top cut. Now, this may be just because he’s considered a populariser, rather than an original thinker. Yet one can accept this and still make the case that he has been, over the last decade, our most important public intellectual. He has changed popular ideas about how ideas spread or how cognition works. He has also created a whole new cultural genre.
Non-fiction, ideas-based narratives are everywhere these days, but the space was opened up by the stunning success of The Tipping Point and Blink. Note that I said “cultural” rather than “publishing” genre, because the genre he spawned is cross-platform and multi-dimensional, and it has seeped into the very grain of our lives. Without Gladwell, no Daniel Pink, no Steven Johnson, no Kahneman-as-best-selling-author-rather-than-respected-but-obscure-academic; no Freakonomics, no Brainpicker, no TED. I exaggerate, but only slightly. Gladwell has done more than anyone else to turn ideas into one of the most valuable currencies of the internet age.
He did this by unearthing material lying dormant in the rarefied realms of academic psychology, sociology and anthropology and shooting bolts of narrative electricity through it. This was never, as is sometimes implied, a mere matter of translation — of making arcane texts user-friendly. It was also about legwork.
It’s often forgotten that Gladwell started off as a reporter — he worked for the Washington Post - and at heart, he remains one. Reporters (good ones) don’t just rearrange other people’s material; they go out and generate new material. They interview, observe, and, well, report. Gladwell’s willingness to do his own legwork and then weave it in with ideas from academic research still sets him apart from his peers.
Here’s another thing that distinguishes him: he can write. He can write really, really well. Gladwell’s writing doesn’t draw attention to itself, because he wants his reader to be glued to his narrative rather than admiring his prose (he once described his style as “please please please don’t leave me”). But don’t be under any illusions: writing like Malcolm Gladwell is extremely hard.I know: I’ve tried, and failed; so have many others.
His finest pieces are put together like a Bach cantata: the themes are introduced, then played in counterpoint, building to a polyphonic climax. They are full of feints, false leads and playful misdirects that make the insights, when they arrive, all the more thrilling (if you have any doubt about the skill and subtlety with which a Gladwell argument is constructed, read this superb structural analysis of his most famous essay).
Sure, not everything he writes is as satisfying or substantial as his best work, but have you ever read a Malcolm Gladwell piece and failed to experience the almost sensual pleasure that comes from being told a good story while having your intellect tickled? Have you ever been bored?
Gladwell is also a more serious thinker than his critics allow. He is not, by his own admission, a purveyor of original ideas, but he is an exceptionally supple synthesiser of other people’s, and his ability to range across discourses rather than sticking to one can give him a perspective that the academics with whom he engages often lack.
The charge of superficiality is itself superficial. We are quick to mistake readability for glibness,and Gladwell’s exquisitely readable style belies the work he does to get deep under the skin of the domains he covers. Check out his exchange with Steven Pinker. If you can hold your own with Pinker (and I think Gladwell more than holds his own here) then you cannot reasonably be accused of being a mere skimmer.
This is true of his ethics as well has his intellect. Can you imagine Gladwell getting into the kind of trouble that one of his acolytes, Jonah Lehrer did? To ask the question is to answer it. How many of his peers have written a 6000 word “disclosure statement” — the only boring thing he ever wrote — detailing their thinking on the proper ethical relationship between writing and consulting? Gladwell is a serious thinker, and a serious man.
So why isn’t he taken more seriously by the supposedly serious? Partly because he’s the brand leader in the field he created, and brand leaders, like Coke, are always easier to attack than celebrate.
It’s also true that his work has real flaws. The reader can occasionally feel as if he’s being manhandled into position in order that the counter-intuitive coup de grace can be delivered (“we tend to think…” — do we? Do I?). Gladwell is an essayist at heart and when his books try to sustain bigger arguments to hide the fact that they are, essentially, collections of brilliant essays, the strain shows (his best book is What The Dog Saw).
I suspect the fundamental reason, though, is that we retain a lingering Protestantism when it comes to the realm of ideas. Gladwell’s writing, as well as being intelligent, penetrating and deeply researched, is intensely pleasurable. That counts against him.
It’s an interesting question: why are we suspicious of the association of pleasure with intellect? I know a writer I’d like to read on that.