Malcolm-Gladwell-pic-smallJohn Gray, emeritus professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, writing in New Republic:

What is striking about Gladwell’s work is not its distance from academic theorizing but the uncritical reverence that he displays toward the academic mind. He describes himself as a storyteller, but for him the story is never enough; it must be supported, and thereby legitimated, by prestigious academic studies and copious references. He is a high priest in the cult of “studies.” He feels on safe ground only when he is able to render his story into the supposed exactitude of quantitative social science. . . .

Perhaps this deference to academic authority reveals an underlying lack of intellectual self-confidence in the famously breezy writer. More likely it reflects his unthinking adherence to the idea that science can enable us somehow to transcend the dilemmas of morality and history. For it is not simply that Gladwell appeals to psychology and sociology as sources of intellectual authority. Along with many of those who promote them today, he believes that these disciplines can provide practical guidance—not just policy proposals, but wisdom for living. Psychology and sociology can turn the sayings and parables of less enlightened times into an expanding body of knowledge. Quantitative reason can take over from the fumbling human imagination.


Gladwell may seem to have devised a new variety of inspirational nonfiction, but it is one that has some clear precedents. He is finally in the self-help racket, and his books belong in the genre of which Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People, from 1936, is the best-known example. There is a never-ending flow of manuals of optimism, offering untold wealth, sexual success, and enduring fame to those who read them and imbibe the lessons they contain. If Gladwell’s writings seem more serious-minded than most of those manuals, it is because his comforting tales of self-improvement and overcoming evil are given a thin gloss of scientific authority. It is this combination, together with the conceit of presenting counterintuitive truths, that makes his work so popular.

Uncharitably, some critics have suggested that this is a genre that risks becoming stale. But the mix of moralism and scientism is an ever-winning formula, as Gladwell’s career demonstrates. Speaking to a time that prides itself on optimism and secretly suspects that nothing works, his books are analgesics for those who seek temporary relief from abiding anxiety. There is more of reality and wisdom in a Chinese fortune cookie than can be found anywhere in Gladwell’s pages. But then, it is not reality or wisdom that his readers are looking for.

You can read the whole thing here.

For those who have read Gladwell’s work: What do you think? Fair or unfair?