G.D. pointed out the latest Gladwell article to me, and now that I’ve read it, I’m at a loss for words: rarely in the history of long-form journalism has the pitch been more obvious or the product more strained. Gladwell decided to write an article on violence in the National Football Leauge, went to his editor with his Vick-topical article and was told to run with it. The problem, of course, is that the entire article boils down to this question:
Is [football] dogfighting or is it stock-car racing?
And that question, I think we can agree, makes little sense for the simple reason that its analogy isn’t analogous. I know that blunt counterintuitive statements are a hallmark of literary journalism, but they need to be founded on something more substantial than this:
[I]s the kind of [tau deposit-induced dementia] being uncovered by McKee and Omalu [in former NFL players] incidental to the game of football or inherent in it? Part of what makes dogfighting so repulsive is the understanding that violence and injury cannot be removed from the sport. It’s a feature of the sport that dogs almost always get hurt. Something like stock-car racing, by contrast, is dangerous, but not unavoidably so.
The relevant analogy is right there—preventable injuries in Nascar versus the NFL—but had Gladwell went with that, he would have to ditch the dogfighting angle.* The problem, then, is that the once venerable New Yorker would rather be clever and topical than deeply informative. Consider, for example, the career of the go-to literary journalist for me and Ari, John McPhee. His first book was about A Sense of Where You Are, was about the professional basketball player, long-tenured Senator and former Presidential candidate Bill Bradley, but was written before Bradley graduated from Princeton. McPhee did a superlative job outlining what would make Bradley successful, but he didn’t write about him because the New Yorker wanted an article about the Senatorial or Presidential candidate.
Similarly, after Katrina the magazine saw fit to print McPhee’s brilliant (and to my students, hilariously unpronounceable) essay “Atchafalaya,” which was first published in in 1987, long before most people outside of Louisiana cared about the state of the levees. My point, as you probably guessed, is that the odds of the New Yorker dipping into their archives and pulling out a Gladwell essay on the strength of its reporting or the depth of its intelligence decrease with every superficially clever, patently topical article they allow him to write and consent to publish. This isn’t to say that Gladwell is incapable of strong reportage or intellectual depth—only that that people can’t seem to convince him to slow down and write something with heft enough to be as relevant twenty years down the line as it is this week.
*I have nothing against clever analogies when they actually, you know, work. My friend Barry Siegel combined a thrilling narrative of a crashing B29 and a legal case that led to . . . something else both topical and relevant which I won’t spoil. (If you want spoilers, consult Ira Glass.)