Before getting into what’s wrong with Malcolm Gladwell, it helps to talk about what’s been right about Malcolm Gladwell. Mr. Gladwell, the nimbus-haired New Yorker reporter specializing in the coverage of ideas, has laid down a significant number of the milestones by which the educated, New Yorker–reading citizen of the year 2006 has found his or her way to this particular moment of socio-cultural existence.
Since January of 1999, for one example, when the New Yorker–reading citizen meets someone new, gets to talking about mutual acquaintances and realizes that the mutual acquaintance is the same mutual acquaintance who comes up again and again—when that occurs, the citizen automatically thinks of Lois Weisberg, the human social hub of Chicago, and Mr. Gladwell’s profile of her. What’s the deal with Jennifer 8. Lee? She’s a Lois Weisberg.
Or when a pair of Converse One-Stars comes into view, it recalls Mr. Gladwell’s March 1997 recounting of how a professional coolhunter shepherded those sneakers from obsolescence all the way back to a featured role on the feet of the dead Kurt Cobain. An April 2000 “Letter from Los Angeles” by Mr. Gladwell marks the first appearance of now-inescapable American Apparel founder Dov Charney in Lexis-Nexis.
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.
“I’m never setting myself up as a definitive voice,” Mr. Gladwell said, discussing his career over the phone. Mr. Gladwell was self-effacing about his work: It’s meant to be the “beginning of a conversation,” he said; he wants to “prompt a different way of thinking about things.”
But Mr. Gladwell is more than an ordinary civilian. At a party on Sept. 26, marking the launch of Canadian magnate Louise MacBain’s new Culture & Travel magazine, a middle-aged woman approached Mr. Gladwell and asked if he was the author of The Tipping Point. Mr. Gladwell told her he was not. Flustered, the woman said she had loved the book, and asked if he had read it.
“Yeah, I did read it,” Mr. Gladwell replied. “That guy’s pretty smart.”
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.
“Malcolm Gladwell has an incomparable gift for generating value by interpreting groundbreaking research in psychology, sociology and neurology and applying it to business,” the Leigh Bureau, the speakers’ agency that represents Mr. Gladwell, boasts on its Web site.
On his own Web site, Mr. Gladwell has posted a 6,300-word disclosure essay, weighing the effects of his new sideline on his work at The New Yorker. The essay delves into the dangers of conflict of interest (both financial and emotional), discusses the nature of bias in human thought and sketches out the debate over the essential meaning of journalistic neutrality.
What it doesn’t get into is the subject of the writing itself. Here is Mr. Gladwell, in 1997, writing as a New Yorker reporter about the business of coolhunting:
“[T]he third rule of cool fits perfectly into the second: the second rule says that cool cannot be manufactured, only observed, and the third says that it can only be observed by those who are themselves cool. And, of course, the first rule says that it cannot accurately be observed at all, because the act of discovering cool causes cool to take flight, so if you add all three together they describe a closed loop, the hermeneutic circle of coolhunting, a phenomenon whereby not only can the uncool not see cool but cool cannot even be adequately described to them.”
And here is Mr. Gladwell the business author, in The Tipping Point, on the same subject:
“Gordon is a Maven—a Maven for the elusive, indefinable quality known as cool …. Gordon developed a network of young, savvy correspondents in New York and Los Angeles and Chicago and Dallas and Seattle and around the world in places like Tokyo and London. These were the kind of people who would have been wearing Hush Puppies in the early 1990s. They all fit a particular personality type: they were Innovators.”
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.
Classification is destiny. There are ideas in the book that are deeply and uncomfortably resonant, raising difficult questions to answer. Mr. Gladwell’s discussion of the viral nature of teen suicide ideation in Micronesia seemed all too topical in a week in which two separate men stormed schools to capture and kill female students. But to find The Tipping Point at the Union Square Barnes and Noble, you don’t go to the cultural-studies section or the rest of the intellectual nonfiction. You head one flight lower, to the business books, in the section labeled “Marketing.”
And how has it been for the reporter who studied commodities, becoming a hot commodity himself? “The more it happens,” Mr. Gladwell said, “the less I understand what’s going on.”
These are, in some ways, ideal times to be trafficking in esoteric bits of information. Material is easier to gather now than it was in 1997. Mr. Gladwell said he spends “less time in the library, more time on Google.”
The new world needs meta-experts to sort out what it all means. “The social value of the synthesizer has grown,” Mr. Gladwell said. “ … So it’s made my life better.”
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.
Mr. Gladwell said he had not framed that particular example up very well. “The message of the book is a profoundly mixed one,” he said.
More mixed, evidently, than the subtitle and summaries might imply. The emphasis on summarizing, Mr. Gladwell said, is the product of his background as a newspaper reporter, and the accompanying concern about losing the reader’s interest. (“Please, please, don’t leave me,” Mr. Gladwell said.) In writing a book, he said, that anxiety “is multiplied by many, many, many, many times.”
When he began posting follow-up notes about Blink on his Web site, Mr. Gladwell said, that passage was one of the first topics of discussion.
The same conditions that help Mr. Gladwell Google an anecdote also allow experts—and would-be experts—to swiftly challenge him on the use and meaning of that anecdote. Mr. Gladwell’s blog has become a place for revisiting his books and stories after publication, where he can drop the authorial dignity and be combative or fallible.
Mr. Gladwell said he views blogging as a way to add footnotes to his work. “In my perfect, nerdy world, The New Yorker would have footnotes,” he said.
In fact, he said, his virtual footnotes are supposed to officially become part of The New Yorker soon, as the magazine Web site absorbs his personal blog. “It’s my understanding that that’s what we’re going to do,” Mr. Gladwell said. “ … And nothing makes me happier.”
Mr. Gladwell said he prizes the aphorism that the perfect is the enemy of the good.
“This way of writing can’t be perfect, but it can be good,” he said. “Good is good, you know? It’s an accomplishment to be good.”
On Sept. 29, Mr. Gladwell posted a blog entry about sportswriting and sports in general, and thence about the way people evaluate other people’s attempts to perform difficult feats—including the bloggers who raised his ire by attacking his story on pensions. “I’m not usually thin-skinned in the face of critics,” Mr. Gladwell wrote. “So why did I react the way I did? I think it was a degree of difficulty question …. How on earth do you write 5000 words on pensions without putting your audience to sleep? It’s pretty tricky, and what I wanted in my heart of hearts, I suppose, was for at least some appreciation of that effort.”
Mr. Gladwell said he has been obsessed with sportswriting lately. He is impressed with Michael Lewis’ ability to carry a sports narrative. “I do think that it’s really hard,” Mr. Gladwell said.
Mr. Gladwell had been watching football on TV over the weekend, the Patriots against the Bengals. The week before, the Broncos had clobbered the Patriots in New England, and sportswriters had accused coach Bill Belichick of being a failure. Now, in Cincinnati, the Patriots had clobbered their foe, in a performance Mr. Gladwell called “transcendent.”
Mr. Belichick, Mr. Gladwell said, is no ordinary coach, but a coaching genius, a “genuine outlier.”
“Another coach in the same situation may well have lost his team,” Mr. Gladwell said. But the outliers, the extreme talents, follow different rules.
“You just have to cut them some slack,” Mr. Gladwell said.
—Additional reporting by Spencer Morgan
Radar Locks In on Former Esquire Digs
After spending three months in a temporary office, Radar magazine—now in its third incarnation after being shuttered twice—seems to have found a permanent space.
Next month, Radar’s staff is expected to move into Esquire’s former digs at 1790 Broadway, just a block away from Columbus Circle.
That is, after Radar signs a four-year lease agreement with the Hearst Corporation, which still controls the space.
“I think it’s all but signed,” said Maer Roshan, editor in chief of Radar, who said he expects the deal to be final in a week or two.
“It’s not a done deal yet, but I’m aware of the deal,” said Jeffrey Rosenblatt, the executive managing director of Grubb & Ellis, a commercial real-estate broker familiar with the office space.
“They’re subleasing from Hearst,” he explained.
Brian Schwagerl, Hearst’s vice president of real estate, confirmed that they were in talks with Radar as well as “several” other possible tenants, but that nothing had been finalized.
If the deal gets sealed, Radar will take the entire 14th floor of the building, which measures 10,240 square feet.
“You just miss the views,” said Mr. Rosenblatt. “The Central Park views start at the 15th floor.”
Maybe that’s why, in May 2006, Esquire moved to the 21st floor of the Norman Foster–designed Hearst Tower. Several magazines, including Marie Claire, were housed at 1790 Broadway, and Hearst still controls seven floors, according to the building’s manager, Jana Vanek.
If Mr. Roshan is hoping a little Esquire magic might rub off on his troubled title, it wouldn’t be the first time.
A little over a year ago, he commissioned designer George Lois to resurrect his famous April 1968 cover of Esquire magazine for the September-October, 2005 issue of Radar. (On that issue’s masthead, Mr. Lois is given the title of “Eminence Grise.”)
That legendary Esquire cover depicted Muhammad Ali in a St. Sebastian pose: hands tied, torso riddled with arrows—it was to be became legend in the magazine world.
Radar’s version of the martyr featured Tom Cruise, similarly arrow-riddled and wearing briefs, tube socks and a dress unbuttoned to show off his bare (and bloody) torso.
“I’m a great fan of Esquire, but it didn’t really play a role in our decision,” said Mr. Roshan, who mentioned that there are Esquire posters still hanging on the walls. As for the main reason behind choosing this office, he said it was because the space already had “the apparatus of making magazines.”
The last time Mr. Roshan’s apparatus was shut down was at the end of 2005, when its backers, media mogul Mortimer Zuckerman and reclusive financier Jeffrey Epstein, dropped out after only three issues.
Just over six months later, Radar got a—third wind?—when Anheuser-Busch distributor (and son of Jesse) Yusef D. Jackson and a group of unnamed investors backed Mr. Roshan. Since then he’s raided several places for editorial and publishing talent and launched a Web site that has been providing daily content for just over a month.
All that out of a makeshift office at 440 Ninth Avenue, near 34th Street.
While there was no word on Radar’s rent, Mr. Rosenblatt said the going rate in the building was between $45 and $55 per square foot per month.
Of the new office, Mr. Roshan said that it has a “very newsroom feel,” with “lots of open space.” He also compared it to the 12th Street office used during the first launch; the second Radar home was on 23rd Street.
At 1790 Broadway, there would be room for growth, too.
“We’re hoping to add on a few more people,” Mr. Roshan said, “but not many.”
Mr. Jackson, a business associate of billionaire Ron Burkle, who is rumored to be an investor, will also have an office there.
Follow Tom Scocca via RSS.