Two recent articles from the Guardian make nice companion pieces for reflection: a profile of Simon Schama and one of Malcolm Gladwell. Each article raises an important question: What counts as valid (useful, responsible) popularization of a subject?
Here’s Oliver Burkeman writing about Gladwell:
We are now sufficiently far into the Gladwell era that the Gladwell backlash is well under way. He is routinely accused of oversimplifying his material, or attacking straw men: does anyone really believe that success is solely a matter of individual talent, the position that Outliers sets out to unseat? Or that the strong always vanquish the weak? “You’re of necessity simplifying,” says Gladwell. “If you’re in the business of translating ideas in the academic realm to a general audience, you have to simplify … If my books appear to a reader to be oversimplified, then you shouldn’t read them: you’re not the audience!” (Another common complaint, that his well-paid speaking gigs represent a conflict of interest, is answered in a 6,500-word essay on Gladwell’s website.)
A subtler criticism holds that there is something more fundamentally wrong with the Gladwellian project, and indeed with the many Gladwellesque tomes it’s inspired. To some critics, usually those schooled in the methods of the natural sciences, it’s flatly unacceptable to proceed by concocting hypotheses then amassing anecdotes to illustrate them. “In his pages, the underdogs win … of course they do,” the author Tina Rosenberg wrote, in an early review of David and Goliath. “That’s why Gladwell includes their stories. Yet you’ll look in vain for reasons to believe that these exceptions prove any real-world rules about underdogs.” The problem with this objection is not that it’s wrong, exactly, but that it applies equally to almost all journalism, and vast swaths of respected work in the humanities and social sciences, too. You make your case, you illustrate it with statistics and storytelling, and you refrain from claiming that it’s the absolute, objective truth. Gladwell calls his articles and books “conversation starters”, and that’s not false modesty; ultimately, perhaps that’s all that even the best nonfiction writing can ever honestly aspire to be.
And here’s Andrew Anthony on Schama:
By the mid–90s, Schama was art critic for the New Yorker, had a chair at Columbia University and had written and presented two series on art for the BBC. Since then, he’s balanced his post in New York, from which he took a sabbatical to make The Story of the Jews, with making films in Britain, trailing an ever-growing army of fans in his wake.
With popularity, however, comes envy, particularly in academic circles, and Schama has not escaped the accusation that he has “dumbed down”. It’s a charge that he vehemently rejects.
To his accusers, he says he wants to say: “‘Try it, Buster. See how unbelievably demanding it is.’ Anyone can write an academic piece directed at other academics. To write something that delivers an argument and a gripping storyline to someone’s granny or eight-year-old takes the highest quality of your powers. I am completely unrepentant. One should not feel shifty.”
I’m with Schama on this one. I’ve spent a good chunk of my career trying to write for a general audience in ways that are faithful to my subjects — that don’t dumb down but rather translate from academic and intellectual terms into something like ordinary language — and it’s really, really hard. But I think it’s immensely worth doing, if you can resist the temptation to cook the data to make your story better.
I think it’s generally understood now that Gladwell does not resist that temptation, and indeed may not even realize that he’s succumbing to it. Reviewer after reviewer after reviewer — many of them experts in the fields that Gladwell dabbles in — have denounced his habit of clutching tightly a piece of evidence that seems to support a good story and then clinging for dear life to it while ignoring everything that might undermine its legitimacy or suggest a more complicated narrative. And yet he shows no signs of mending his ways. Gladwell has written some interesting and useful things, but overall he’s a very bad popularizer.
Simon Schama, on the pther hand, is a very good one, and this is largely because he is an academic and can, so to speak, show his work. A book like Citizens, the one that put him on the general public’s map, is an absolutely riveting story, but it’s backed, as his notes and bibliography show, by extremely thorough research. He’s a very well-trained, highly skilled scholar who also happens to have a great gift and and passionate love of storytelling. It’s a rare combination, but the ideal one for the would-be popularizer.