I would have never started reading Maureen Tkacik’s Gladwell for Dummies in The Nation if I had known that it was over 8K words, so, you know, be warned. And yet it has an “irritating, unrelenting readability” that kept bringing me back to it over several hours. While Anti-Gladwellian screed might be too strong of a descriptor, I’d be comfortable throwing around phrases like petty and jealously thorough. Profiles like this don’t get written without there being some sort of personal vendetta involved. And yet, while it’s a devastating look at Gladwell’s work, it also functions as a takedown of those who enjoy his books. The title of the article should not have been “Gladwell for Dummies” (that would have been better lampooned as “Pseudoscience for Airplanes”), but “Gladwell is for Dummies”. Maureen, you make me feel dumb for having read Gladwell’s articles, what SHOULD I read?
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.”