Saturday, January 16, 2010

Malcolm Gladwell and the problem with modern narrative nonfiction

“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]


Unknown said...

You got me thinking. Possibly,the reason Malcolm Gladwell reads so well is that he sets up his non-fiction as fiction.
But I am assuming this is largely a personal expression of discomfort with his outlook, and not really an exhortation to keep away from the book?

Because if the former is true, then his point(or , as you hint, brag) about his ability to "engage", instead of "persuade" is well borne out by your reaction :D(Notwithstanding your professional stance as a reviewer)

I liked your piece very much, but the point is this: I'd still go out and buy a new Gladwell book as soon as I possibly could.
If anything,your analysis has given me a reason to read it more closely :)


Unknown said...

You raise some interesting and valid points but it brings up this question - would non-fiction be "engaging" for the lay reader without the use of some of the devices employed by authors like Malcolm Gladwell and others?

Too much dramatism - turning human beings into characters as you said, tends to spoil what would otherwise have been an enjoyable read without the author having to inject such artifacts. I am currently reading Lawrence Wright's "Looming Tower" and had this same nagging feeling of the overuse of dramatic narrative. Still, structurally it is very engaging.

Anyway, I am curious who you (and other readers of this blog) would count as among the more interesting, contemporary non-fiction writers?


Chandrahas said...

Krishna - Of course it's not my intention to say that people shouldn't buy the Gladwell book. In fact, more than the Gladwell, I was hugely impressed by the Meyer (which lapses into this kind of staging very rarely) and took many things away from it.

A criticism of something isn't necessarily a rejection of that thing. I'm only recording the encounter of my reading mind with a particular book, explaining what it responded warmly to and what it found itself unable to accept or believe. My problems with Gladwell may not be problems for you, yet something is still achieved by my articulating them as closely as I can. Since you say you're now going to read the book more closely, I'll take this as meaning I've done my job.

Chandrahas said...

Manju - Non-fiction can definitely be engaging without recourse to these little deceptions. There's only so far one category can be in dialogue with another category before it loses its own nature altogether. In fact, to my mind non-fiction only betrays its insecurities by trying to adopt the techniques of fiction wholesale.

Many splendid biographies, which are almost by definition at attempt to "get into someone's head" make no attempt to reconstruct scenes from the subject's life in this problematic fashion, eliding all distance between writer and subject.

In fact, for all that it appears to help the reader "engage' with the material, this sort of ventriloquism actually suggests a lesser and not a better understanding of how human beings really live, work, and engage with others. Or to put it another way, a writer of non-fiction has a duty both towards the real people represented in his book and to his readers, and to my mind he condescends to both groups when he performs acrobatics of dramatic reconstruction like these. One of the first things one should know is what one cannot possibly know.

Unknown said...

Chandrahas-Sure. Thanks for clarifying.

One more thing: the entire book can be found in Gladwell's website: there is a compendium of his writing in the New Yorker.

His last essay was on the relevance of "To Kill a mockingbird", and I suspect it may pass muster on the strength of what you said you'd like to see in non fiction( at least, it takes lesser liberties with the narrative). I don't know if it was included in the book. That essay was somewhat fresh in my mind when I wrote this comment; that's why I asked that particular question.

Anu said...

I haven't read Gladwell (bit wary of anything that can be remotely classified under Management) but Manjunath I quite like Graham Robb's A Discovery of France that I am presently reading. Its an account of pluralism and homogenisation in France and surprisingly gets you thinking about India's plural and converging identities. It dramatises a number of events - it starts for e.g. with an account of the murder of a cartographer's assistant. I quite like that it is not a pedantic account and that Robb embroiders historical records, sometimes flimsy, with his own dry take. Something of the author comes through and I don’t particularly mind that.

I think the biases and tendency to dramatise is fine in a non-fiction work, especially one aimed at a lay readership-provided one doesn’t over egg of course! The readership can broadly sift fact from fiction in the work, I think. Otherwise the book becomes a work of interest solely to academics in the area i.e. it is concerned with pure facts (in so far as this is possible)?

Raghu Karnad said...

Good note of caution to non-fiction readers and writers. I wonder, though, about the examples you've chosen from the articles: To what extent they're cases of authorial hubris, and to what extent bad writing.
The portrait of nocturnal Popeil, asking things "casually" and thinking "Yee-haw", might all come off as poor judgement in fiction as much as in non-fiction. So how does "mind-meld" play out when it is attempted but the attempt doesn't suck?

The biographies you mention in your comment are probably mostly about famous people, whose lives and worlds were recorded in enough detail to relate from a careful distance, and still be full accounts. To tell the stories of smaller, undocumented lives, non-fiction writers may sometimes have no choice but to lay hands on some of the prerogatives of fiction. There may be artifacts of private experience and interior life which are lost to the record, and when reconstructed -- using research, empathy and skill -- are not automatically false. (Plenty also remains recorded as history or memory, and is admissible as non-fiction, that isn't thorough truth.)

Keep in mind also that it's not difficult for a writer to confuse human beings with characters even if she stays within the limits of technical facts. "Contradiction, inertia, mystery, or deception" belong in fiction as much as in n/f, don't they? So their sacrifice in either may be mostly a sign of bad writing.

Anyway, I agree that the minimum price an author should pay for extra prerogatives is to acknowledge them, in whatever form, and not be as glib and self-sure as Gladwell sounds in his preface. So I'm completely with you on the final line in your piece.