Monday, November 17, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell: Geek Pop Star

Geek Pop Star is an article by New York Magazine's Jason Zengerle. He discusses the phenomenal success of writer Malcolm Gladwell, and his new book, Outliers. Gladwell previously wrote The Tipping Point and Blink.

In the article, Gladwell states he does not think of himself as an outlier.  Instead, he thinks of himself as a parasite.

"No amount of self-deprecation can mask Gladwell’s phenomenal success. Since the 2000 publication of The Tipping Point, he has been less a journalist than, as Fast Company once deemed him, 'a rock star, a spiritual leader, a stud.' Business executives seek him out for his insights, adoring fans stop him on the street to shake his hand, and other writers strive to emulate the genre he essentially pioneered—the idea-driven narrative that upends the way we think about everything from cigarettes to ketchup. 'We get scores of proposals each year promising a Gladwellian take on the world,' says Shandler. 'I don’t know any other author who has spawned that kind of adjective in nonfiction.' One Condé Nast editor, struggling to come up with another writer who has occupied as singular a place on the media landscape as Gladwell currently does, finally offers, 'It’s kind of Norman Maileresque, isn’t it?' Forty years ago, all the sad young literary men were trying to find their own armies of the night to mythologize; now they search for their own hipster footwear trend to deconstruct.

     Gladwell’s modesty isn’t entirely a pose. As he’s the first to acknowledge, his writing largely consists of taking the work of academics and translating it in a way that makes it understandable—and entertaining—to a lay audience. His job, as he describes it, 'is to be this intermediary between the academic world and the public.' That has led some critics to dub him not so much a parasite as a pilferer. "

That view, although in the minority, stems from people who don't read carefully enough, and assume that, instead of a skillful editor and translator, Gladwell is some sort of super-researcher that has time to come up with disparate ideas, write books and articles full-time, and walk the talk circuit.  The ideas he presents are generally well-annotated and sourced.

I expect no less from his new book, but I must admit here I haven't read Outliers yet.  (Also, I know that in that book Malcolm tackles the steoreotype about Chinese students, which makes me wary.  I'm not sure how it was handled in the book, and I won't know until I read it.  I digress.)

Jason sums up Outliers as a book where,

"Gladwell examines all the things other than individual merit—the 'hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies'—that produce hockey stars and software billionaires and math geniuses, he builds a brief for a massive reorganization of social structures and institutions that will give people who don’t have those advantages and opportunities and legacies an equal shot at success."

The world probably needs more recognition of that. We need to chop the laces off the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps Horatio Alger myth.  

(From Metafilter)


Moose withthoughtslikemine said...

I do love his books, but I also agree that he is an intermediary between academics and the public. And good on him... If academics won't take it upon themselves to communicate their findings to the public (and many do), then I have no problem when someone else (i.e. journalists) do so.

Doughboy said...

it's true that his books can seem like extended one-idea magazine articles but he does have a great sense of story and the tales and biographies he uses are interesting of themselves, regardless of whether you agree with the controlling idea or not.

Anonymous said...

I saw him on Daily Show. He's kinda weird, but cool. I've never heard of him before that.