That success is in the eye of the unsuccessful would seem to be the great unspoken dilemma dogging critics asked to consider the work of the rich and famous author and inspirational speaker Malcolm Gladwell. No matter how well intentioned or intellectually honest their attempts to assess his ideas, the subtext of Gladwell’s perceived success, and its implications for their own aspirations in the competitive thought-generation business, obscures their judgment and sinks their morale. Nearly a decade has passed since the New York Times dryly summarized Gladwell’s first book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000), as “a study of social epidemics, otherwise known as fads,” and yet, each Sunday, it still taunts perusers of the paperback nonfiction rankings, where it currently sits in sixth place. Gladwell may be merely “a slickster trickster” who “markets marketing” (as James Wolcott put it), or a “clever idea packager” who “cannot conceal the fatuousness of his core conclusions” (science writer John Horgan); he might even be an “idiot” (Leon Wieseltier). But one thing is clear: Gladwell is no fad. He is a brand, a guru, a fixture at New York publishing parties and in the spiels of literary agents hoping to steer writers toward concepts that will strike publishers as “Gladwellian.”
By 2005, when Gladwell’s second book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, made its debut on the Times bestseller list in the No. 2 spot, the assumption had gradually taken hold that despite Gladwell’s bona fides as a New Yorker staff writer, his success was on some level a triumph of style over substance, verisimilitude over reality, ease over rigor. It did not hurt that the closest Blink came to a governing thesis was the foggy notion that too many ideas can spoil an operation.
A gaggle of irate critics, seeking to right this injustice, came charging, pens bravely brandished, only to watch themselves sink into the quicksand of Gladwell’s infuriatingly memorable–“sticky,” in Gladwellese–concepts and jargon. “Why does spending a weekend with Mr. Gladwell’s best-selling books…lead to unhappiness and a pathological fixation on writing in rhetorical questions?” wailed Tom Scocca in the New York Observer. So discombobulated was Scocca by this critical game of pin-the-tail that when he finally stopped spinning, he stuck his sticker straight into a tautology. His solution to the Gladwell question was to posit that Gladwell’s style had simply gotten too Gladwellian. “The problem with the Malcolm Gladwell Piece,” as he put it, “is that it always seems to contain phrases like ‘the problem with the Malcolm Gladwell Piece.'”
That Gladwell’s most recent blockbuster monograph, Outliers: The Story of Success, actually purported to be about success only accelerated the vicious cycle of maddening self-reference, begging as it did a critical Gladwellian case study of Gladwell’s own “success.” The book’s premise can be distilled to a single sentence: success is the result of many variables, most of which lie outside the control of a particular individual. Gladwell illustrates this point through various anecdotes and case studies that teach us a great many things we already know. For instance, hard work and education are important. Also: Culture Matters. Know Thyself. Practice Makes Perfect. Or, in the words of the Observer‘s Alexandra Jacobs, Outliers is about “how super-achievers like–well, like Malcolm Gladwell!–get where they are.” And sure enough, in The New York Times Book Review, David Leonhardt took the bait, writing a brief alternative history of Gladwell’s life crediting said “success” to his parents’ professions. His mother, a psychotherapist, and his father, a mathematician, “pointed young Malcolm toward the behavioral sciences, whose popularity would explode in the 1990s,” wrote Leonhardt; in addition, his mother, who “just happened to be a writer on the side,” taught him “‘that there is beauty in saying something clearly and simply.'”
But in examining Gladwell’s success concurrently with his prescriptions for achievement, even his harshest reviewers damned themselves with faint criticism. When Michiko Kakutani dismissed Outliers for employing the patented Gladwell “shake-and-bake” recipe “in such a clumsy manner that it italicizes the weaknesses of his methodology,” she still granted him a coherent method; when The Economist embraced the book’s “engaging” and “intriguing” case studies while wryly enclosing the overarching “big idea” in quotation marks, it overlooked Gladwell’s refusal to engage meaningfully with the world of ideas at all.