Malcolm Gladwell is a phenom to be sure. His books always end up on the best seller list (there are two of them on now, Outliers and What the Dog Saw) and he is a popular inspirational keynote speaker. I admit, I imbibe. I read his New Yorker pieces religiously. I’ve read all his books. He’s got something in his approach to reportage that is terribly attractive, like the literary journalism equivalent of the salt, sugar and fat that food manufacturers knowingly combine to make it impossible for us to eat just one potato chip. Is his flavor edge that he takes an easy open approach to problem solving? Is it the comfort of finally thinking I understand why mammograms are so hard to read and why John Kennedy Jr’s plane crashed off Martha’s Vineyard? Am I being too harsh? Because the truth is, some part of me enjoys reading Gladwell. It goes down easy, like comfort food. But then there is that nagging sense at the back of the throat that I’m not getting a full meal.
Some of that discomfort is captured in a thorough and extremely intriguing article, “Gladwell for Dummies,” by Maureen Tkacik in The Nation, which begins with this summary of the Gladwell critique problem:
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.”
(This article is well worth reading in its entirety.)
But here’s a perfect example of Gladwellian writing that stimulates and inspires. From his piece, “The Ketchup Conumdrum,” Gladwell explains why mustards can come in many styles but ketchup is ketchup:
After breaking the ketchup down into its component parts, the testers assessed the critical dimension of “amplitude,” the word sensory experts use to describe flavors that are well blended and balanced, that “bloom” in the mouth. “The difference between high and low amplitude is the difference between my son and a great pianist playing ‘Ode to Joy’ on the piano,” Chambers says. “They are playing the same notes, but they blend better with the great pianist.” Pepperidge Farm shortbread cookies are considered to have high amplitude. So are Hellman’s mayonnaise and Sara Lee poundcake. When something is high in amplitude, all its constituent elements converge into a single gestalt. You can’t isolate the elements of an iconic, high-amplitude flavor like Coca-Cola or Pepsi. But you can with one of those private-label colas that you get in the supermarket. “The thing about Coke and Pepsi is that they are absolutely gorgeous,” Judy Heylmun, a vice-president of Sensory Spectrum, Inc., in Chatham, New Jersey, says. “They have beautiful notes—all flavors are in balance. It’s very hard to do that well. Usually, when you taste a store cola it’s”— and here she made a series of pik! pik! pik! sounds—”all the notes are kind of spiky, and usually the citrus is the first thing to spike out. And then the cinnamon. Citrus and brown spice notes are top notes and very volatile, as opposed to vanilla, which is very dark and deep. A really cheap store brand will have a big, fat cinnamon note sitting on top of everything.”
Amplitude has become a common term being put to work in every industry, from book publishing to digital marketing campaigns. And after reading this passage I too wanted to claim it for that aha! experience we have all had with a work of art. Who can explain why it is that everything comes together to make a painting sing? One of my college professors described a great painting as one that almost doesn’t work, but it does. The teetering edginess, that amazing balancing act of composition, color, texture, content, intent—unlike ketchup, that is not a recipe or prescription that anyone can pass along. But amplitude is an apt term nonetheless.
Maybe Gladwell’s writings are best employed as a condiment. I don’t mean that as a put down. I have a fridge full of fine condiments, the absence of which would seriously detract from the flair and fun of our household culinary journey. But condiments work best in smaller doses, offering those high points in the company of the basic food groups.