Tim Carmody on what’s good about Malcolm Gladwell’s journalism

Malcolm Gladwell has come in for a lot of criticism over the last couple of years – for a variety of reasons, I suppose:

  • He just got too over-exposed – or rather, lots of people started trying to do his thing – and didn’t do it as well as him
  • Perhaps he has also suffered a bit because, in a way, he’s a kind of personification of Ted-ism – and there is a backlash against that at the moment
  • People really didn’t like his piece on Twitter, social media and revolutions and political activism
  • His last book was the closest he’s come to what he’s always being accused of – business guru/management theory.

Of course, the thing about Gladwell is that the best things he does are the essays/features for the New Yorker. When he does a book, he, or his editors, push a larger story/provocative angle. That doesn’t always allow Gladwell to do what he does best – which is investigate and play around with new ideas/research – often about something hugely popular/taken for granted/kind of ubiquitous.

Tim Carmody does a great job of detailing the many strengths of Gladwell’s journalism in the latest addition to Nieman Storyboard’s Why’s This So Good series (as well as coming up with a good reason why Gladwell’s piece on Twitter (Small Change) didn’t work.) Riffing on Gladwell’s New Yorker piece on ketchup, Carmody starts with a list of things Gladwell does well:

  • He’s quotable, but also ‘paraphrasable and anecdote-able’ – I guess the point is that he’s great at packaging up intriguing facts in a form you can pass on in some form.
  • He’s good at stories that identify something counterintuitive (in a way, this is what lots of journalists try to do – few do it as well as Gladwell.)
  • He’s a ‘master of misdirection and the slow play’ – he weaves different strands, A stories and B stories and other disparate threads into an open exploration of a topic or idea – Carmody calls them ‘intelligence games’ and says that, at their best, they don’t come with ‘business-retreat-ready takeaways’, which seems right to me.

There’s loads to think about in the piece – one of the best in this series – but the last point might be the most interesting in terms of long form journalism. I guess one of the reasons people (writers and readers) are drawn to long form is that they’re looking for journalism with narrative complexity and depth; they want to read factual stories that do a better job of reflecting reality than the standard inverted pyramid formulaic storylines journalists usually serve up.

The problem is, long form journalists’ model of complex narrative is, for the most part, the nineteenth century novel (Tom Wolfe is the grand-daddy of this approach – Michael Lewis is, I guess, the leading modern practitioner).

But there are lots of other sorts of narrative journalists could work with – not just traditional realism. There are other novelistic approaches they could adapt. And approaches from other media. For example, the complex multi-level narratives of modern TV drama, with A, B and C storylines. One of Carmody’s points is that, among all the other clever things Gladwell does, this mixing of multiple storylines is a key part of what makes his work distinctive.

It’s definitely a point worth making. When Gladwell was being profiled everywhere, he was praised for the ideas in his pieces – all that stuff from social psychology etc. And that’s fair enough. But perhaps he hasn’t had enough credit for his craft too. Or his way with a story – or stories.