Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Uh oh, Michiko got her groove back!

In case you missed it today, Michiko Kakutani has returned from her "month in woods" (by which I mean her piece on the closing of Yankee Stadium-'bout time, I say-and her strange Jon Stewart profile) to get back to the business of reviewing books for the Times and man-o-manischewitz has she ever returned. A quick look at the snippets of her most recent books includes the following bits of reviewing delight:

On the Kerouac/Burroughs collaboration:

"The best thing about this collaboration between Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs is its gruesomely comic title."

On the new John Updike novel:

"“The Widows of Eastwick,” while deeply flawed, is a less tendentious, more emotionally credible work than its predecessor."

On the new Philip Roth novel:

"Philip Roth’s latest book in which a dead man tells of his too short life reads like an elaborate, blackly comic joke. And it’s a joke, in the end, that doesn’t amount to a full-fledged novel."

With these knife slashes drawing fresh blood from the book jackets of internationally known authors, it was obvious that she was in no mood to have Malcolm Gladwell's newest volume Outliers land on her desk.

“Outliers,” Mr. Gladwell’s latest book, employs this same recipe (as his previous books-Eds.), but does so in such a clumsy manner that it italicizes the weaknesses of his methodology. The book, which purports to explain the real reason some people — like Bill Gates and the Beatles — are successful, is peppy, brightly written and provocative in a buzzy sort of way. It is also glib, poorly reasoned and thoroughly unconvincing."

Well, "glib, poorly reasoned and thoroughly unconvincing" isn't so bad, right? Sheesh. I must admit that I generally enjoy Gladwell's New Yorker essays but Michiko's article reminds me that I never question where he gets his stories or anecdotes. I just simply accept his theories as having some rigorous, studied background...the tipping point, for instance. However, I can't rightly say I checked to see if "the tipping point" was a proven theory, accepted by social scientists (or just scientists period), or just a clever vehicle where several instances seem to have the same set of characteristics so the theory must be "true."

Much of what Mr. Gladwell has to say about superstars is little more than common sense: that talent alone is not enough to ensure success, that opportunity, hard work, timing and luck play important roles as well. The problem is that he then tries to extrapolate these observations into broader hypotheses about success. These hypotheses not only rely heavily on suggestion and innuendo, but they also pivot deceptively around various anecdotes and studies that are selective in the extreme: the reader has no idea how representative such examples are, or how reliable — or dated — any particular study might be.

Right. Why haven't I spent more time on that when I read his first two books The Tipping Point or Blink? Perhaps, just perhaps, the internet mentality of writing things without much research, consideration, or rigorous reviewing by others before publication has finally been exposed for the empty neo-pop psychology that it really is? It is possible. I haven't read Mr. Gladwell's new book yet (I'm a paperback guy...I can't stand the publishing industry's reliance on hardcovers) but I shall and when I do, I am going to read it with a red pencil to see if what is concluded by Mr. Gladwell is borne out by the research. Makes sense, no?

Writing of a transcript from the doomed flight, Mr. Gladwell says of the first officer’s failure to communicate his plight: “His plane is moments from disaster. But he cannot escape the dynamic dictated to him by his culture in which subordinates must respect the dictates of their superiors.”

Such assessments turn individuals into pawns of their cultural heritage, just as Mr. Gladwell’s emphasis on class and accidents of historical timing plays down the role of individual grit and talent (grace under pressure? Hemingway lives, no? - Eds.) to the point where he seems to be sketching a kind of theory of social predestination, determining who gets ahead and who does not — and all based not on persuasive, broadband research, but on a flimsy selection of colorful anecdotes and stories.

In one way, Mr. Gladwell lucked out. She could have done one of those reviews where she writes the review in the manner of the book she is reviewing. Those are always ugly for her and the author in question.

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