Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why I Bailed on THE NEW YORKER

Sue Halpern's latest piece for The New York Review is entitled "Making It;" and it examines three books that try to take on the question of why successful people are successful (and, to some extent, why unsuccessful people fail). She begins by reviewing The Snowball, Alice Schroeder's "authorized" biography of Warren Buffet; but the fun does not start until she shifts her attention to Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success. We know we are in for a good time as soon as she introduces her change of subject:

Gladwell, of course, is the clever master of the anecdote who owns the franchise on high-concept books with pithy titles—The Tipping Point, Blink, and now Outliers—that repurpose scraps of academic research into slinky intellectual lamé.

Anyone who has read any of Halpern's own work (her writings about the efforts of science to grasp the nature of memory being the best case in point) knows that she can make a point through anecdote along with the best of them but would not be caught dead trying to make that point through "scraps of academic research." The very concept of "scrap" implies something that has been ripped from its context; and one of the most important lessons of logic is that a proposition removed from its context can easily deteriorate from hard truth to worthless balderdash. With a style that would have delighted Vladimir Nabokov as "a mischievous but very healthy pleasure," Halpern deftly demonstrates that it is virtually impossible to hurl a cat without the beast sailing unscathed through some hole in Gladwell's reasoning.

However healthy the pleasure may be, we still have to ask that proverbial question posed by one of the Knaben Wunderhorn poems set to music by Gustav Mahler: "Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?!" (loosely translated as "Who made up this shit?"). Having recently invoked Nabokov in an attack on Dan Brown, I can simply claim that it is easy enough to lay all of the blame on the author; but most of Gladwell's stuff comes out of extended articles he has written for The New Yorker. So there is a deeper question that goes beyond Gladwell's "slinky intellectual lamé:" If there is so much specious reasoning in the text, why didn't an editor catch it and insist on doing something about it? It is hard to imagine John Hersey getting such cavalier treatment when he wrote his New Yorker piece about Hiroshima, and I suspect that even scholar par excellence Hannah Arendt needed editorial refinement when she took on the task of covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. I am less concerned that Gladwell can blithely spin together his cherry-picked anecdotes and more concerned that The New Yorker no longer seems to have editors perceptive enough to recognize a questionable "scrap" when it is staring them in the face.

There are, of course, still some authors of quality at The New Yorker. Seymour Hersh is the best (if not only) example I can come up with quickly. I just wonder to what extent Hersh worries about his own writing becoming "contaminated by context." If his reports are surrounded by others whose arguments run the gamut from questionable to patently false, does not that cast at least a shadow of questionability on his own writing? Even the best writers (like Arendt) need good editors; and I worry about what may happen when Hersh slips through a crack of shoddy editing. Thus, while I maintain my respect for Hersh, my skepticism about anything found in The New Yorker continues to rise monotonically!

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