In Defense of Malcolm Gladwell (Not that he needs it)

I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell. In books like “Outliers,” “The Tipping Point,” and “David and Goliath,” he takes complex counterintuitive concepts and makes them understandable for people like me. One of his strengths is using the power of story to create an emotional connection with his readers as he discovers underlying connections between disparate dots. Whether it’s the 10,000 hour rule or the reasons why underdogs triumph more than you’d expect, he takes what could be brushfire dry material and gives it a page- turning sheen. I’m not alone in my appreciation; over the years, Gladwell has amassed millions of loyal followers.

And yet, Gladwell has his share of detractors, most of whom dismiss him as a mere “popularizer.” The argument goes like this: Gladwell’s ideas are nothing new. Academics have known about them for years. He simply dumbs things down to make them palatable for the general public. In nonacademic terms, this pisses me off. It smacks of the worst kind of intellectual snobbery. More specifically, I have three problems with this line of thinking:

  1. Academic writing (along with its first cousin, legal writing) stinks. It’s designed to obfuscate (see, I appropriated one of their words), not clarify or enlighten. They develop this “technique” as undergrads in an attempt to BS their way through blue book exams. They figure if they throw enough two-dollar words and circular thoughts against the paper, perhaps they’ll sneak through with a passing grade. It’s lazy writing but they stick with it because it works. Upon reaching assistant professor status, it’s become second nature. And no one calls them out on it because their colleagues write exactly the same way. These folks have no business commenting on prose as sparking as Gladwell’s. Those of us who write for a living know the hardest thing is to make our craft look easy. Or as Mark Twain once said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter so I wrote a long one instead.”
  1. Jealousy. As I mentioned, Gladwell writes best-sellers. Academics don’ They wouldn’t sell a dozen copies if the books weren’t required reading for their captive student audiences. They’d change places with Gladwell in an instant given half a chance and a modicum of his talent.
  1. What’s so bad about being a popularizer anyway? Isn’t the point of being a writer to make a human connection with your readers? Gladwell has opened my eyes and mind while occasionally touching my hear Who cares if he’s rehashing old ideas (which I doubt) or dumbing them down (which I appreciate).

As for those academics, let me paraphrase an old conundrum. “If a book gets published and no one reads it, does it even exist?”