In Defense of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Oversimplifying” Journalism

We’re in the middle, or maybe it’s the tail end, of a Malcolm Gladwell backlash. Sure, his books still sell in the kind of numbers that your average author only sees in his wildest dreams. Sure, he may be responsible for that entire field now known, somewhat dubiously, as “ideas” journalism. He may even be indirectly responsible for the über-popularity of TED Talks, which seem to take their inspiration from the Gladwellian “chew-it-up-and-spit-out-an-idea” oeuvre. But among what today passes for the intelligentsia, he’s come under fire.

The concern, it seems, is that Malcolm Gladwell oversimplifies his findings, and the condescension about this drips from quite a lot of writing about the book. C.f. Janet Maslin, in the Times: “The world becomes less complicated with a Malcolm Gladwell book in hand.” Or, this bit of disingenuousness from an academic who wrote a somewhat incoherent rant at Slate: “He has certainly reached the masses — he was on the cover of the Costco Connection! — and I don’t begrudge him this at all.” (Sure you don’t.)

Look: I am not a wholehearted Gladwell defender, because his books aren’t for me. I don’t really know that I find them that insightful. But over the course of the Gladwell backlash, and in spite of agreeing with the vast majority of this excellent piece Moe Tkacik wrote a couple of years ago for The Nation about Gladwell, I have gotten annoyed at one point that is put forth as absolute truth. Specifically, that Gladwell’s crime is that he simplifies things at all, that he ought to let them remain in the realm of the complicated and difficult to understand.

Let me be clear: to the extent that any criticism of Gladwell is coming from the position that he’s presenting ideas incorrectly, that’s one thing. But that’s not usually the criticism, that Gladwell has made a factual error, saying that A is A when it’s actually B. Instead, the complaint is something like that Gladwell ought to be saying A is actually A with some small qualifier. And usually, the reason is that when the academic whose idea he’s borrowing (with attribution!) would write about this issue, they would admit that A was really A minus one. That the academic would also lace the thing with jargon and impenetrable sentence structure in order to achieve this usually goes unmentioned.

In my experience, and that is an experience of coming out of academia and into journalistic writing, most writing consists of simplification. Journalism is in fact a simplifying process. It consists of one person learning a bunch of stuff, digesting it, and then spitting it out for “the masses,” which in other parlance is merely “the public.” And there is real value in conveying stuff to the public. Namely, the public should be aware of the world around them. The world around us should not be a matter only specialists debate.

Evidently, that particular argument is bugging Gladwell, too, and bugging him a lot. Yesterday, he actually came down from the mountain to respond to that Slate piece. And as could perhaps have been expected, his response was generally more entertaining, and demonstrated better writing, than that of most of his critics. For example:

Incidentally, around the same time I ran across Chabris’ piece in Slate, I came across another article on an academic blog that describes — in almost identically overheated language — the enormous consequences of my transgressions around things like quoting articles from the Journal of Experimental Psychology. “Gladwell is a bullshitter,” the blog post concludes. It was written by Michelle Meyer — who informs us in a footnote that she is Chabris’ wife. I clearly drive her crazy, too. These are not tranquil times in the Meyer-Chabris household.

Upon reading this little retort I laughed. I laughed because Gladwell, whatever his other faults, is a very effective storyteller. In the space of a few lines he can lay the smack down, as the Internet likes to put it. He knows the rhythm and the pull of a compelling story very well, and he knows that the power of story is very direct. Specifically: he knows that in the most compelling stories, the concepts are quite boiled down: the glass slipper only fits Cinderella, the hero always gets the girl. Which is why his books have all the “uplift” and “cheerfulness” that his critics rightly point out; the truth is, most people don’t go to stories to be depressed. They go to feel affirmed. They go to laugh. And so you can see that Gladwell knows what he’s doing with this little anecdote; he’s getting the reader, even the skeptic like me, on his side. Even as he’s sort of evading engaging the person’s actual arguments.

Gladwell’s redeeming feature is his occasional self-awareness, which is much in evidence in his rebuttal piece. In fact, he basically admits to the primary charge his critics level at him: oversimplification.

I have always tried to be honest about the shortcomings of this approach. Stories necessarily involve ambiguity and contradiction. They do not always capture the full range of human experience. Their conclusions can seem simplified or idiosyncratic. But at the same time stories have extraordinary advantages. They can reach large numbers of people and move them and serve as the vehicle for powerful insights.

I don’t think that Gladwell’s writing, at least what I’ve read of it in the New Yorker, is always as self-conscious — or, let’s use his word, honest — about this problem as he’s claiming. Because right now, the conventions of journalism demand that he “own his subject,” which is another way of saying that he presents himself in the text with absolute self-confidence. I’m not a fan of that convention for all sorts of extra-literary reasons I won’t bore you with in this post. But Gladwell isn’t doing anything that your average editor at your average prestigious general-interest magazine doesn’t command you to do, because it is a way of getting people to pay attention to you. And people, for better or for worse, pay attention to Malcolm Gladwell. If his critics want the same amount of attention, they might see if he has something to teach them. You learn as much from your adversaries as from your friends.