Always in search of a good story

Always in search of a good story
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First Published: Fri, Dec 11 2009. 09 11 PM IST

Genre bender: Gladwell has been writing for The New Yorker since 1996 and has written three more books. Brooke William / Hachette Book Group / Bloomberg
Genre bender: Gladwell has been writing for The New Yorker since 1996 and has written three more books. Brooke William / Hachette Book Group / Bloomberg
Updated: Fri, Dec 11 2009. 09 11 PM IST
On the afternoon of October 23, 2006, Jeffrey Skilling sat at a table at the front of a federal courtroom in Houston, Texas.” Yes, you’re right—this is the first sentence of an essay from The New Yorker. It features the now-familiar “hook”—a moment of dramatic tension, a set of precise visual details (Skilling is not attending his trial, as some writers might have put it, but sits at a table at the front of a federal courtroom), and the selection of a protagonist who is an entry point into the story— practised and perfected by generations of writers for that magazine, and other American long-form magazines such as Esquire and The Atlantic Monthly, at least since the 1960s, when writers such as Tom Wolfe began to plunder the techniques of fiction for their reportage. The current incumbent of the position of star New Yorker writer—a position held in the past by such greats as E.B. White, A.J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, and the current editor David Remnick—is Malcolm Gladwell, the smooth-talking mind behind the best-sellers The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers, all of which offer provocative theses on modern life.
Genre bender: Gladwell has been writing for The New Yorker since 1996 and has written three more books. Brooke William / Hachette Book Group / Bloomberg
Gladwell’s new book, What the Dog Saw, has no central thesis like the previous ones, but instead brings together the best of his essays, on subjects as varied as ovens, hair dye, football quarterbacks and money markets, published in The New Yorker over the past decade. The general philosophy of these pieces seems to be, on the one hand, that human behaviour and wants are endlessly variable and complex and cannot be reduced to a system, which is why we require writers such as Gladwell to explore its oddities, and on the other (and somewhat in contradiction to the first emphasis), that human behaviour is endlessly fascinating and is therefore worth theorizing about in all its quirks, particularly if such studies yield counterintuitive or logic-tickling results.
Two favourite Gladwell subjects, popping up repeatedly across these essays are, one, the variables involved in human choice-making, and two, adroit salesmanship or transactional ability. Gladwell explores human behaviour in the public sphere much more than the private sphere; some emphasis on commerce or a judgement of economic worth is present in most of his essays, and he uses the phrase “the new economy” a lot. He seems both an adept guide to, and at the same time a child of, the highly consumerized, commoditized world in which we now live, showing us how “the products and the commercial messages with which we surround ourselves are as much a part of the psychological furniture of our lives” as emotions and interpersonal relationships.
All the strengths and novelties of this approach are on view in the best essay in this volume, True Colors. Like all the other essays in the book, it begins with a protagonist—Shirley Polykoff, a copywriter—who managed to make the newly available use-at-home hair dye dramatically popular among American women in the 1950s with her hit line for Clairol, “Does she or doesn’t she?” Polykoff’s influence on the minds of middle-class American women was soon rivalled by the slightly more upmarket message projected by the brand L’Oreal that said, “Because I’m worth it.” Gladwell’s key point is that the revolution in hair dye technology and the representations of hair dye users in the advertising of the time were not trivial matters. “Between the fifties and the seventies,” he writes, “women entered the workplace, fought for social emancipation, got the Pill, and changed what they did with their hair. To examine the hair-colour campaigns of the period is to see, quite unexpectedly, all these things as bound up together, the profound with the seemingly trivial.”
But at many other points Gladwell’s need to turn data into a dramatic story (two essays in the book have as their closing image men breaking into tears, while another ends with a spike, with a room full of people cheering for the protagonist) and blithe fly-on-the-wall approach towards reporting raise difficult questions that cannot be simply brushed aside. Take, for instance, the opening essay of his book The Pitchman, which is about a family of inventors of kitchen gadgets, the Popeils, who sell their own products with such a charming, smooth-talking pitch that consumers lap them up. But Gladwell appears to have become so mesmerized by his subject that he himself begins to pitch for Popeil, turning hearsay into fact. “S.J. Popeil was a tinkerer,” he writes, building up a portrait. “In the middle of the night, he would wake up and make frantic sketches on a pad he kept on his bedside table.”
Is this true? Possibly. But how does Gladwell know this? Only S.J. Popeil was on the scene during his bursts of late-night inspiration! It makes sense, then, for Gladwell to say that this is how Popeil said he worked. But no—Gladwell here, and at several other points in the book, prefers to practise what the media critic Jack Shafer has called “mind-meld journalism”, giving the impression that he has uninhibited access to his subject’s mind and life. I can’t but think this is dishonest, corner-cutting reportage, even if it makes for a good, smooth story; it turns human beings into puppets, even as the larger argument may insist they are vastly complex creatures. As in Gladwell’s other books, there is no shortage of intriguing hypotheses and surprising insights in What the Dog Saw, but the overall effect of smart-aleckiness and the absence of sustained human encounters swiftly becomes wearisome.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf. Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Dec 11 2009. 09 11 PM IST