Why I am deeply suspicious of Malcolm Gladwell

So, I am moved, I am living in Emeryville, I am somewhat settled in. The blizzard of meeting old friends has abated (just as a massive and quite literal blizzard arose in the District that I left behind). I am even writing again, so I figured it was time to come back to this blog.

As I mentioned in one of my last few posts, during this period of dislocation I have read alot of “literary nonfiction” or, as I snobbily call it, “pop nonfiction”. You know the kind of stuff I’m talking about. The author is usually a character in the book. He namedrops alot of smart, successful, and somewhat obscure people, and then tells you why you should know about what they’re doing. And it’s not really possible to dip one’s feet into this genre without your toes coming up coated in Malcolm Gladwell.

Now, I like reading Malcolm Gladwell’s work. The stuff he talks about is often very new to me, and quite interesting. And when I am done reading a Malcolm Gladwell book, I feel like I really understand the world. I feel the same way I felt after taking physics in high school. All these heretofore invisible processes are now suddenly real to me. And what’s more, I can interact with them. I can manipulate them. The little principles in Gladwell’s books feel like a lever with which to move the world.

But I do not trust that feeling. Somehow, Malcolm Gladwell is always able to explain things within a few thousand words. He seems to operate off the belief that he has a question, then someone, somewhere, has answered it. And that’s true, of course. But is that answer the right one? If that answer is written down and presented in a Malcolm Gladwell book, then I am automatically predisposed to assume that it is not right.

For instance, his book Outliers, which is about how some people achieve extraordinary achievement, generated the meme — within the writing world, at least — that one needs 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery at something. But in the book, he did not really prove this thesis at all. All he did was show that Bill Gates and the Beatles had practiced a whole lot before they achieved success.

But even a minimal level of thought will reveal that 10,000 hours of practice clearly does not guarantee success in any field. Gladwell did no study on this (and it would actually be pretty difficult to study), but there are surely many people who have practiced for more than 10,000 hours and achieved no success. We just don’t know about them because they’re not rockstars, they’re waiters. They’re not billionaire entrepeneurs, they’re coding grunts. That’s the problem with Gladwell. His search for explanations is so intense that he is often willing to attribute the entire credit for a given effect to only one of its causes (and sometimes it’s a pretty minor cause, at that).

But I still like to read Gladwell, because he’s a skillful story-teller. He can’t stop. He even tells throwaway stories, just for color, that don’t serve his central point at all (and in fact make his central point seem like kind of a dick). For instance, in The Tipping Point there is a long discussion of how crime went down in New York during the 90s. Gladwell, like many commentators at the time, attributes this to the broken windows style of policing, wherein police aggressively pursue minor crimes like fare-jumping, graffiti, vandalism, etc, under the belief that these crimes can signal that greater crimes will be tolerated in this area. And while he’s talking about this, Gladwell is interviewing a former director of the New York subway system, who says:

“We had a yard up in Harlem on one hundred thirty fifth Street where the trains would lay up over night,” Gunn said. “The kids would come the first night and paint the side of the train white. Then they would come the next night, after it was dry, and draw the outline. Then they would come the third night and color it in. It was a three day job. We knew the kids would be working on one of the dirty trains, and what we would do is wait for them to finish their mural. Then we’d walk over with rollers and paint it over. The kids would be in tears, but we’d just be going up and down, up and down. It was a message to them. If you want to spend three nights of your time vandalizing a train, fine. But it’s never going to see the light of day.”

When I read that, I was shocked. How can Gladwell get a person to say something like that? I think the normal tendency of human beings is to demonize their opponents, and assume that they possess no positive virtues and care only for destruction. But this guy, Gunn, attributed all the components of true artistry to those kids…whose work he then destroyed, and was proud of destroying.

Not only is this a great quote, and one that Gladwell must have gone through hours of interviewing to get, but its inclusion in the book actually kind of hurts his point. If these kids vandalize out of an artistic impulse, and not a destructive one, then what relationship does their graffiti bear to murder? They’re not remotely the same sort of thing. But Gladwell includes it anyway. And he does that kind of thing all over. In his writing there’s sort of a general spillage of detail that gets over everything. It’s very impressive, and I think it comes out best in his New Yorker articles, which are often more like profiles, and less like comprehensive efforts to explicate the world. If you want to read some, you could read his essay collection What The Dog Saw, which is by far the best Gladwell book, or you can read exactly the same articles (and many more) for free on his website.

7 thoughts on “Why I am deeply suspicious of Malcolm Gladwell

  1. Becca

    I’ve only read The Tipping Point, and I found myself while reading constantly entertained, but also constantly suspicious of everything Gladwell was saying. I’m not sure if that’s Gladwell’s fault, or my own contrariness, or just the fact that I find it hilarious that he was describing 1980’s NYC as a kind of dystopian wonderland.

    I don’t know, though, I am with you that I sort of doubt anybody’s ability to describe THE WHOLE WORLD in one book! Which is often the difficulty with pop nonfiction as a genre.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      That description is kind of a political staple. Rudy Giulani used to make heavy use of it to establish his credentials as an awesome mayor. I don’t know if I can buy it, but on the other hand…during our lifetimes crime has continuously dropped. In actual point of fact, the world we live in is much safer than the one we were born into, so maybe that level of crime actually does inject some kind of lingering dread into the air that we’re unable to perceive, or even imagine, nowadays.

      Oh, also, one of the other pop nonfiction books I read was the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks…which was really good. Given that the narrated events of the book ended at around 2002 and the book came out in 2010, though, I wonder what actually happened during all the intervening time.

      1. Becca

        I just find it sort of boggling, still. But then, my parents continually cast where I live as some kind of dystopian wonderland – and I live there! It’s not that bad! So I can’t help but wonder if it was basically the same back then; the rhetoric is awfully similar. Or maybe that’s just their lingering memories of Dystopian NYC.

        The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a really amazing story, yeah. But I wonder about that period, too – and again, I always find myself with this instinctive distrust of the narrator of the pop science book, which probably isn’t fair, but which I can’t get rid of.

        1. R. H. Kanakia

          I live here in Emeryville just a mile north of my former roommate Brian (from Synergy). And he definitely does live in a dystopian wasteland. There are empty boarded up warehouses. And actual crack dens. And corner drug dealers. And a man who sells drugs from a hole in the fence. And gunfire! It is a scary place. Although at least it is not densely populated, which makes it kind of a little better. But yeah, after seeing West Oakland, my standards for dystopian wastelands have gone way up.

          Yes, I remembered your review of Henrietta Lacks. I also wondered whether this story could have been told just as well without the first-person narrator.

  2. Ben Godby

    I haven’t read any Gladwell, but, yeah, “silent evidence,” or whatever its technical name is, is something that tends to slip by in most analyses. Actually, there’s a great analysis of that whole phenomenon in “The Black Swan,” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. But, anyway, I think you’re right: there are probably a whole lot of guys who’ve been playing guitar all day every day for three decades and are still living in shitty apartments rolling joints on greasy pizza boxes. I, personally, know many “shredders” who are nonetheless obviously outshined by poppy no-talents, so what’s to say?

    When it comes to reading writers who are writing about writing (and obviously I in desperation do this frequently), there’s a lot of silent evidence. “Do this and you will succeed” is the oft-heard refrain of those writers who don’t make enough money writing and therefore must make money writing about writing or teaching courses about writing. That has always made me uneasy: “Why the fuck aren’t you writing” is what I’m always wondering.

    I realize, of course, that you are a Clarion graduate, and a successful one at that, but that will not keep me from my belief (which is only half-formulated) that the lion’s share of Clarionites remain obscure unknowns (like the rest of us) and that this is not some thing unique to Clarion but is in fact the expectable outcome of all instruction manuals and courses for all arts disciplines ever and always – despite the optimism of all these manuals and courses ever and always.

    Anyway, today is Pessimist Wednesday. But, hey, while I’m being all loud-mouthed: do you think you could’ve “done it” without Clarion? I know you referred to your experience a while back in a post about a(n urban-[?]) fantasy story you wrote while there. But… the people need to know more.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Hey Ben,

      Alex J. Kane actually asked me about Clarion awhile back, and I wrote extensively about him in this comment.

      Honestly, I have not really “done it”. I’m at most maybe a year or two ahead of you. Your next story could be accepted to Asimov’s and then we’d be peers by anyone’s definition. I think that Clarion has a noticeably better success rate than many writing courses. I went to Clarion in Summer of 2011. About half of my class of 22 have made significant professional sales since going in. One just inked a novel deal. However, I’d be reluctant to attribute that solely to the workshop. The workshop is different from many writing programs in that it attracts alot of older people (average age in our class was 31-32) and most of the people it attracts are pretty serious since they had to clear out six weeks from their work schedules (using, for most, a year’s vacation, and for some, making more drastic alterations in their lives) to attend.

      I can’t really tell you where I would be without Clarion. I found it very useful, as I wrote in the linked comment. But other people found it not very useful. Some found it harmful.

      With regards to your other stuff, I don’t think that writing about writing, or teaching writing, is necessarily an indication that you’re a bad writer. You could just be writing stuff that not many people want to buy. The debate about popularity vs. quality is not one that really has an answer, but I think we can all agree that there are books we’ve liked alot — and are really glad the authors chose to write — which nevertheless did not make enough money to justify the time the author spent writing them. Writing about writing is just a way for authors to make more money from people who really liked their books (people who are often aspiring writers).

      Sincerely,
      Rahul

  3. Ana

    Speaking of the drop in crime… another pop nonfiction book, Freakanomics, attributes the drop in crime to the legalization of abortion. Their argument is basically that Roe v. Wade prevented a lot of babies from being born who would be pre-disposed to delinquency (living in poor, single-parent homes that were not ready to take care of them). The sudden drop in crime coincided with the year that the first flock of un-born babies would have reached delinquency age (late teens). Pop nonfiction vs. pop nonfiction… who wins!?

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