Gladwell Agonistes


I’m not sure why Malcolm Gladwell‘s fourth book, What the Dog Saw, which collects 19 of his New Yorker essays, has been the one to incite a riot of review-essays.

Were the first three books not successful enough? Was something in Gladwell’s methodology not previously clear? Were his best and worst traits not yet delineated?

Whatever the reason, the last few weeks have seen a lot of meditations on Gladwell. I’d like to draw your attention to two, one admirable (Steven Pinker’s “Malcolm Gladwell, Eclectic Detective,” the cover review in this week’s New York Times Book Review), one not (Maureen Tkacik’s “Gladwell for Dummies,” in The Nation).

Tkacik begins with a smart point: “That success is in the eye of the unsuccessful would seem to be the great unspoken dilemma dogging critics asked to consider the work of the rich and famous author and inspirational speaker Malcolm Gladwell.” It all goes downhill from there, as she unloads almost 8,000 words of nastiness–a number generously padded by phrases like “Gladwell began studiously scrubbing his sentences of the mildew of the old, liberating his readers from references to anything that might dirty undiluted all-newness with the dourness of precedent.” Tkacik does a fine job summarizing Gladwell’s critical reception (though I’m not sure we really needed that), but, by the end, she seems to be writing a screed against the people who like Gladwell as much as against Gladwell himself.

Then, 180 degrees away, we have Pinker’s essay. It offers all the payoffs of a good review: engaging summaries, sharp observations (e.g., that Gladwell-the-essayist is much better than Gladwell-the-author), and a great sound bite (“The themes of the collection are a good way to characterize Gladwell himself: a minor genius who unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning and who occasionally blunders into spectacular failures”). When it does come time for a reckoning, Pinker damns Malcolm with his own muffed details; his catch of Gladwell’s “igon values” is enough to make any writer cringe at the thought of reaching for a fact ever again.

Best of all, Pinker does this in only 1,400 words. Together, his and Tkacik’s reviews remind us that two takes on the same work can reveal not only different conclusions–Tkacik describes Gladwell’s “recurring straw man” as “misguided evangelism . . . [for] fringe causes,” whereas Pinker finds “the Straw We . . . a kind of populism” that unites Gladwell’s work–but also different impetuses.
Also: check out Stephen Elliott’s interview with Gladwell from The Rumpus’s early days.

Craig Fehrman is a grad student and writer living in New Haven. You can find more of his work here. More from this author →