Hating on Malcolm Gladwell: Are Reviewers Just Jealous?

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Malcom Gladwell, author, essayist, and perennial bestseller released his newest book, "What the Dog Saw," a collection of essays previously published in The New Yorker. Despite or perhaps because of his success, Gladwell has always had detractors. Academics often accuse him of a classic fallacy: finding causation where only correlation exists. Yet Gladwell's harshest critics often pair their disapproval with the reluctant, if not painful, admission that they admire his work.  In the spirit of such inquiry, the following Gladwell critiques contain the best backhanded compliments,  reserved praise and spiteful criticisms hurled at the author:

  • Don't Write Books, That's What I Do  Steve Pinker, a Harvard professor of psychology and author of "The Language Instinct" and "The Stuff of Thought" reviews Gladwell's new book in The New York Times: "Gladwell has become a brand," writes Pinker. He is a "dilettante" with a "lack of technical grounding" whose "education on a topic consists of interviewing an expert." Though Pinker gives glowing praise for Gladwell's short form work, it's as if Pinker wants Gladwell to back off his turf and stick to essays in The New Yorker: "Readers have much to learn from Gladwell the journalist and essayist. But when it comes to Gladwell the social scientist, they should watch out..."
  • An Incoherent Writer Who's Detestably Readable, writes Maueen Tkacik in The Nation. What angers Tkacik most aren't Gladwell's "puzzling" beliefs, but his engaging writing. She's confounded by "his continued defense of the pharmaceutical industry even as he advocates for single-payer healthcare; his refusal to indict the financial sector's rigged 'star system' as the engine of corruption that it is; the meticulous bleaching of his own prose so that he's whitewashed out any real context, any framework in which wars and economic collapses can actually be understood as wars and economic collapses rather than simulations or malfunctions; his near total avoidance of academic thought that does not base its findings on things observed in labs; his coyness about politics; and most memorably, his irritating, unrelenting readability."
  • He's Sickeningly Good, writes Tony Ortega in The Village Voice: "Whenever we see a piece by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker, we know exactly what's going to happen. We'll be entertained and titillated as the frizzy-haloed essayist takes us once again into the trippy world of statistics and ideas, only to confront us with evidence that some axiom or law we thought was on solid ground is in fact misleading and counterproductive. Our immediate reaction is nearly always the same -- 'Wow! I never thought of it that way. What a genius this Malcolm Gladwell is!' But then, inevitably, as his seductive reasoning sinks in, we get the nagging feeling that Gladwell's been gaming us, and that despite the requisite overlooked small-time experts that he's dug up to back up whatever it is that he's debunking, we wonder if he really isn't full of shit."
  • Gladwell's Just Lucky He Wrote in the 90s, observes Isaac Chotiner in The New Republic: "When Malcolm Gladwell began writing for The New Yorker in 1996, the economic 'boom' had reached the stage where its effects could be glimpsed in the culture and even the language of the country. Robert Rubin and Alan Greenspan were celebrated as intellectual giants who transcended the worlds of finance and politics. The expansion was so astounding as to seem arcane; and the time was ripe for a writer to explicate the seemingly mysterious phenomena, and to instruct readers--especially in the business community, which is always looking for a new theory of the deal--in the arts of all this epoch-making marketing. At just the right moment he came along and in disarmingly affectless and faux-naïf prose adapted the work of academics and sold it to a mass audience. Historians will look back on his books as primary documents of their dizzily materialistic day."

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