“On the afternoon of October 23, 2006, Jeffrey Skilling sat at a table at the front of a federal courtroom in Houston, Texas.” Not too hard to guess: this is the first sentence of an essay from the New Yorker. It features the familiar hook – a moment of dramatic tension, a set of precise visual details (Skilling is not attending his trial, as some writers might have put it, but sits at a table at the front of a federal courtroom), and the selection of a protagonist who is an entry point into the story – practised and perfected by generations of writers for that magazine, and other American long-form magazines like Esquire and The Atlantic Monthly, at least since the nineteen-sixties, when writers such as Tom Wolfe began to raid the techniques of fiction for their reportage. The current incumbent of the position of star New Yorker writer – a position held in the past by such greats as EB White, AJ Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, and the current editor David Remnick – is Malcolm Gladwell, the smooth-talking mind behind the bestsellers The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, all of which offer provocative theses on modern life.
Gladwell’s new book, What The Dog Saw, has no central thesis like the previous ones, but instead brings together the best of his essays, on subjects as various as ovens, hair dye, football quarterbacks, and money markets, published in the New Yorker over the last decade. The general philosophy of these pieces seems to be, on the one hand, that human behaviour and wants are endlessly variable and complex and cannot be reduced to a system, which is why we require writers like Gladwell to explore its oddities, and on the other (and somewhat in contradiction to the first emphasis), that human behaviour is endlessly fascinating and is therefore worth systematising and theorising in all its quirks, particularly if such studies yield counterintuitive or logic-tickling results.
Two favourite Gladwell subjects, popping up repeatedly across these essays, are, one, the variables involved in human choice-making, and two, adroit salesmanship or transactional ability. Gladwell explores human behaviour in the public sphere much more than the private sphere. Some emphasis on commerce or a judgment of economic worth is present in most of his essays, and he uses the phrase “the new economy” a lot. He seems both an adept guide to, and at the same time himself a child of, the highly consumerised, commoditised world in which we now live, showing us how “the products and the commercial messages with which we surround ourselves are as much a part of the psychological furniture of our lives” as emotions and interpersonal relationships.
All the strengths and novelties of this approach are on view in the best essay in this volume, “True Colors". Like all the other essays in the book, it begins with a protagonist – Shirley Polykoff, a copywriter – who managed to make the newly available use-at-home hair dye dramatically popular among American women in the nineteen-fifties with her hit line for Clairol, “Does she or doesn’t she?” Polykoff’s influence on the minds of middle-class American women was soon rivalled by the slightly more upmarket message projected by the brand Oreal that said “Because I’m worth it.” Gladwell’s key point is that the revolution in hair-dye technology and the representations of hair-dye users in the advertising of the time were not trivial matters. “Between the fifties and the seventies,” he writes, “women entered the workplace, fought for social emancipation, got the Pill, and changed what they did with their hair. To examine the hair-colour campaigns of the period is to see, quite unexpectedly, all these things as bound up together, the profound with the seemingly trivial.”
But at many other points Gladwell’s love of a dramatic story (two essays in the book have as their closing image men breaking into tears, while another ends with an upward spike, with a room full of people cheering for the protagonist) and nonchalant fly-on-the-wall approach towards reporting raise difficult questions that cannot be simply brushed aside. Take for instance the thoroughly charming opening essay of his book, “The Pitchman”, which is about a family of inventors of kitchen gadgets, the Popeils, who sell their own products with such a charming, smooth-talking “pitch” that consumers lap them up. Here is one of Gladwell's portraits.
S.J. Popeil was a tinkerer. In the middle of the night, he would wake up and make frantic sketches on a pad he kept on his bedside table. He would disappear into his kitchen for hours and make a huge mess, and come out with a faraway look on his face. He loved standing behind his machinists, peering over their shoulders while they were assembling one of his prototypes.
Here we have the classic portrait of dishevelled, unruly genius down to the last detail, such as that adjective "frantic". Is this true? Possibly. But how does Gladwell know this for a fact? After all, only S.J.Popeil was on the scene during his bursts of late-night inspiration! It makes sense, then, for Gladwell to say that this is how Popeil, or perhaps his wife, said he worked. But no – Gladwell here, and at several other points in the book, prefers to practise what the media critic Jack Shafer has called “mind-meld journalism”, giving the impression that he has uninhibited access to his subject’s mind and life every hour of the day.
The effect, in this piece, is actually that of a writer who has become so mesmerised by his subject that he himself begins to pitch for Popeil. To me this is dishonest, corner-cutting reportage, though it makes for a good story. It bestows upon a chosen human being intriguing backstories and flaming passions, scrubbed free of contradiction, inertia, mystery, or deception (even as the larger argument may insist that people are vastly complex creatures). This approach hankers after the fiction writer's omniscience, but actually turns it into something of a joke by confusing human beings (who are independent, and often inacessible even when in front of us) with characters (who are always constructed, and are mysterious only insofar as the author allows them to be). This trend is now fairly common in non-fiction books of our era; it appears not to be a problem worth thinking about any more. Here, for instance, is a passage from Michael Meyer's recent and otherwise admirable book about the fall of the Berlin Wall, The Year That Changed The World. Meyer tells us how the Wall was breached on the night on 9 November, 1989, and then moves into a flashback:
Earlier that evening, just after 6 p.m., [...] Gunther Schabowski, the portly spokesman for the new East German Politburo, installed just weeks earlier, stopped by the offices of the communist party boss, Egon Krenz, en route to the daily press briefing, a recent innovation designed to demonstrate the regime's new openness.
"Anything to announce?" Schabowski asked, casually.
Krenz shuffled through the papers on his desk, then passed Schabowski a two-page memo. "Take this," he said with a grin. "It will do us a power of good."
The writer's reluctance to use a distancing device such as reported speech even when it is clear that the encounter being described was a private one turns the incident to something that might have come, for example, out of the screenplay of The Lives of Others. The reason he does this is that there is something in the memo that will, unsuspected by Krenz and Schabowski, swiftly bring down the whole regime, so the words "casually" and "with a grin" work to set up a dramatic irony in the story. But this reconstruction, even if based on the testimony of one of the two players involved, loses in reader's trust what it may gain in storytelling power.A similar problem plagued – and for me ruined – Rajiv Chandrasekaran's tale of American bungling in post-Saddam Iraq, Imperial Life In The Emerald City, which "reported" scenes of armed conflict down to what the characters were thinking at the time (“Yee-haw, thought Fish, who was sitting behind Aguero”).
In a platitudinous, self-congratulatory preface to What The Dog Saw ("Along the way, writing has never ceased to be fun, and I hope that buoyant spirit is evident in these pieces"), Gladwell makes a curious point about "good writing":
Nothing frustrates me more than someone who reads something of mine who reads something of mine or anyone else's and says, angrily, "I don't buy it." Why are they angry? Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. Not the kind of writing that you'll find in this book, anyway. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else's head – even if in the end you conclude that someone else's head is not a place you'd really like to be.
For a writer with so much skill, this seems an amateur's theory. Even so, what interests me most about this passage is not its hazy binaries or tendentious contentions, but why Gladwell has to qualify "Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade" with the back-door escape of "Not the kind of writing that you'll find in this book, anyway" instead of going straight on to "It succeeds or fails on...".
As with Gladwell’s other books, there is no shortage of intriguing hypotheses and surprising insights in What The Dog Saw. But the overall effect of smart-aleckiness and the absence of sustained human encounters swiftly becomes wearisome. One longs to be with a writer interested not just in providing "a glimpse into someone else's head" – this is not as exclusive a community as Gladwell makes it out to be, although it does seem to be top of the to-do list of the modern-day nonfiction writer – but in thinking about the forces and pressures and limits that operate on that all-seeing eye, as much as the heads that it apparently gets into.
And a review of Meyer's The Year That Changed The World is here.
[A shorter version of this essay appeared a few weeks ago in Mint Lounge]