Standing Ovation For Maureen Tkacik’s “Gladwell for Dummies”

What, me huckster?
What, me huckster?

Tkacik’s indictment of Gladwell is incisive, epic, merciless, and right. It runs a full seven web pages and is worth reading every word. Now, the next time you see someone reading Blink and reflexively go to slap it out of their hand, you’ll be able to explain why you did it. Here’s a choice gleaning from fairly late in the piece. Click through to start at the beginning.

And so once again we find Gladwell muckraking in the trenches of banal cliché and thereby reinforcing said cliché–and, more insidiously, banality itself. In Outliers, as in Blink, he appears to assume that the unexamined life is the only sort his readers could be living, though lessons with titles like “Demographic Luck” and “The Importance of Being Jewish” suggest that he may have downgraded his expectation of who his readers are from the less savvy to the truly oblivious. Outliers contains a few new terms and morsels of trivia: the 10,000-Hour Rule describes the number of practice hours one must put in to attain true genius; we also learn that fourteen of the seventy-five individuals on Gladwell’s list of the “richest people in human history” were Americans born between 1831 and 1840. (Cleopatra is No. 21.) But for the most part, the book’s first section, “Opportunity,” contains nothing that will enlighten anyone who has given even a small fraction of 10,000 hours of thought to the word’s meaning.

Also, it’s worth looking at this piece in light of this website’s ongoing discussion of what good criticism can or should look like.  The piece is occasioned by the publication of Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, but it could hardly be considered a mere “review” of that book. And yet, it’s not a NY/LRB-style essay, where the book(s) provide a sort of anchor for a larger discussion about something else. Tkacik seems completely at ease in Gladwell’s catalogue, moving with an apparent lack of effort through and between his books. She has a clear thesis that is developed, amplified, and otherwise nuanced over the course of the essay.  A writer who disagrees vehemently with Tkacik’s thesis and all her supporting arguments–or a writer who couldn’t care less about Gladwell one way or the other–still has a lot to gain from reading this essay. It’s a stand-out example of a particular kind of long-form criticism.