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"Gladwellian" Outlier Thesis to Apply to Gladwell? Yes/No/Maybe.

Filed under: The Squib Report   Tagged: , ,

Jason Zengerle has a substantial article in New York magazine on Malcolm Gladwell that’s pretty much a must-read for Gladwell enthusiasts. I very much count myself among that group, and I learned plenty.

In retrospect, the appearance of Gladwell on the national stage, around 2000, when The Tipping Point first came out, had some similarities to the splash occasioned by our new president-elect, back in 2004. Like Obama, Gladwell’s genius is rhetorical in nature, and The Tipping Point got as much attention for what it promised as for what it actually was, I think, and Gladwell became a kind of receptacle for his readers’ hopes in a way that Obama has, albeit on a much larger scale.

I recall attending the Gladwell’s 2004 New Yorker Festival event, held at that Times Square building with the curvy ABC News feeds slithering around it in green and amber; this was a couple of months before Blink came out. Gladwell spoke about the shooting of Diallo and was riveting, I thought. The Q&A portion of the event was dominated by people who had read a galley of Blink, and each questioner started, it seemed, by stating how “beautiful” or “spiritual” or “inspiring” the experience of reading it had been—odd words for a decidedly intellectual book.

That was some serious adulation being expressed there, and it makes for a tough act to live up to. I don’t think I’m speaking out of school when I say that the intervening years have not been a bed of roses for Gladwell, even as his bank account swells (amusingly, he claims not to know much about that). Critics have popped up (maybe they were there all along but feeling outnumbered), and there’s been a feeling that the books were perhaps too slight to warrant all the hoopla—Zengerle and Gladwell seem to adopt this line. Outliers seems to have been written in this spirit; it’s described as more “personal” and “serious.”

Myself, I see the flaws in the first two books, but I also never thought that Gladwell was really setting himself up as the grand theorist everyone took him to be (of course, I was also intoxicated by his narrative voice; still am, I suspect). Once I was able to classify him as a kind of popularizer, a mantle he willingly adopts, then a lot of the criticisms came to seem churlish. Plus I didn’t see anything wrong with his focus on “mere” trends and marketing, as if such phenomena could not be handled with brilliance or insight or ambition. If he seems glib in retrospect, if the days before Iraq and Guantanamo permitted that kind of playful tone, that isn’t really Gladwell’s fault, and judging from Zengerle’s article it sounds like he’s sobered a bit, is after bigger game. I’m glad to see him taking on systems instead of those “mere” trends (even if I don’t share the need to dismiss), and I’m looking forward to the new book.


We admit to joining the chorus of the churlish in our post today: http://abbeville.wordpress.com/2008/11/12/malcolm-gladwell-is-wrong/

Caviling aside, we do find Gladwell’s work fun and engaging—if we didn’t, we wouldn’t have engaged with it at such unseemly length…

We are also passionate New Yorker readers and new fans of Emdashes. Look forward to reading more in future!

- The Abbeville Manual of Style Team

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