Free fall

1 July 2009

Malcolm Gladwell's lengthy demolition of Chris Anderson's latest book Free has given Gladwell's review a lot more attention than the book itself. Google Blog Search turned up an estimated 8000 hits for "gladwell anderson review free new yorker". Even given Google's legendary inaccuracy in calculating the number of hits (the chances are it's closer to 800), that's still a lot of comment and bloggage. And here's another one.

Alan Patrick of Broadstuff argues that Gladwell has the necessary superstar cachet to be noticed by the media - economists have criticised Free with barely a nod. But there is another reason why people have latched onto Gladwell's critique: it's one member of The Big Idea book-writing club rounding on another. While Patrick argues that the fascination with Gladwell's review is symptomatic of a forward march into the Age of Unreason, it could be that one bestselling form of business book is nearing extinction.

It's a form that's been falling apart for a while. Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times began the review of Gladwell's own Outliers with:

"Malcolm Gladwell's two humongous best sellers, 'The Tipping Point' and 'Blink', share a shake-and-bake recipe that helps explain their popularity. Both popularize scientific, sociological and psychological theories in a fashion that makes for lively water-cooler chatter about Big Intriguing Concepts...Both books are filled with colorful anecdotes and case studies that read like entertaining little stories. Both use Powerpoint-type catchphrases...to plant concepts in the reader's mind. And both project a sort of self-help chirpiness, which implies they are giving the reader useful new insights into the workings of everyday life."

I don't know how chirpy Free is for I haven't read it. But that paragraph could so easily be applied to the glut of high-concept business books that greet you on the promo tables of airport bookshops around the world.

Normally, for a book of this you have to stretch out the argument to ten chapters, in the knowledge that one would do the job - this is possibly why the lecture tours do so well. Why read the book when the author can cut out the chaff live without the unnecessary bother of reading? It is at least one step up from my use of video recorders, which seem to wind up watching films on my behalf. The video recorder never gives me a summary of whether it was worth the decoding.

Kakutani, unlike the victim of his review, gives away the secret in the second paragraph: "'Outliers'...employs this same recipe. It is also glib, poorly reasoned and thoroughly unconvincing".

Now, of course, most reviewers can wield the knife with greater impunity. I don't believe Kakutani has a high-concept business book on the shelves. The problem for Gladwell is that his critique of Free can so easily be applied to his own work. You wouldn't have to change many words in the final sentence of the New Yorker review:

"The only iron law here is the one too obvious to write a book about, which is that the digital age has so transformed the ways in which things are made and sold that there are no iron laws."

So, if the proponents of the high-concept business book are now turning on the form - maybe Gladwell has had a bit of an epiphany or reckons the game is up - will publishers start to turn away from it, fearing that the public itself is getting bored with expositions of easy theories that leave out the counter-evidence?