When the I isn’t the I

I saw some friends on Twitter harshing on a story by Malcolm Gladwell in the Guardian, so I was curious enough to read it. I’m not a fan of Gladwell’s shtick, so I wanted to see if this was more reason to think he’s too pleased with himself.

But by the time I read the third paragraph, I smelled a rat. See what you think:

Many years ago I ruined a beautiful friendship, and it was over a song, which sounds like a strange thing to ruin a friendship over. And what makes it even stranger is that the song was sung with the utmost love and affection.

My friend’s name was Craig, and I met him at college. We both went to a place called Trinity at the University of Toronto, and it’s this weird little place.

We would wear long black academic gowns, and jackets and ties to all meals, and we would say Latin grace before we ate. We didn’t really have jocks because we weren’t large enough, and we didn’t really have a party culture because we were too nerdy for that. All we really ever did was sit around and make fun of each other. We did this to an extraordinary extent, and the person who was best at that game of making fun of everyone was my friend Craig.

Craig was this tall, incredibly handsome guy, and he had this extraordinary charisma. Women flocked to him. He was just this sort of legend with the ladies. He had this sense of humour that was something that I had never encountered before. And he really kind of led us like the Pied Piper.

That’s only the start of the third paragraph, but it’s the place where I put on the brakes and reread those first five sentences of the third paragraph.

Ok that’s not Gladwell talking as himself. Not possible. He writes for the New Yorker. He wouldn’t be writing for his local free weekly if that were his real way of writing. It’s a parody of some sort, with a highly unreliable narrator. Adults don’t write “this tall, incredibly handsome guy” and “he had this extraordinary charisma” right on top of each other like that. They don’t write it at all. The first person in this piece is not Malcolm Gladwell at all, just as Holden Caulfield wasn’t J D Salinger and Huckleberry Finn wasn’t Samuel Clemens.

It’s a story of the kind Ring Lardner was such a genius at, in which a rather horrible narrator reveals how horrible he (it usually was a he) is without ever realizing it himself.

I can’t say I think it’s very good, because it’s too unsubtle, but it at least isn’t bad in the sense that it reveals Gladwell to be like the narrator.


  1. quixote says

    Erm, sorry to be dense, but I don’t get it. Are you saying someone’s impersonating Gladwell on the Guardian? I’d think they’d get bent out of shape about that. And if someone is impersonating him, why is that interesting?

    Initially, I thought Gladwell made original connections. After a few articles, he started to strike me as a much hipper and cooler version of Tom Friedman. I haven’t kept track of him since then.

  2. Al Dente says

    I see what you mean, Ophelia. The writing is imitation Valley Girl* (“He was this tall…he had this extraordinary charisma…He was just this sort of legend…He had this sense of humour…). Who uses “this” in that way?

    *I’m dating myself by using the term Valley Girl. But then I dated myself all through high school.

  3. says

    @2 Except, not a girl cuz guys are the ones wearing jackets and ties to dinner, plus until very recently, Trinity was sex-segregated. Women only ate there on weekends, when the women’s residence (St. Hilda’s) dining hall was closed.

  4. says

    What I didn’t know, when I wrote this, is that it was originally spoken, not written. So I’m probably wrong and he really is that big an asshole.

  5. says

    quixote, no, not impersonating, just that it’s a literary Thing, to use a tricky narrator to do things like seeming ok at first and gradually turning out to be horrible.

  6. quixote says

    Ah. Thanks for the footnotes!

    He’s struck me as an aren’t-I-so-goshdarned-precocious prick since way back, which is why it didn’t sound particularly out of character. Although he does usually write better, but if it was spoken that explains that, too.

  7. says

    I’m confused. Has Malcolm Gladwell ever done anything to make you think he was not a giant asshole?

    I mean, from his beginnings shilling for tobacco companies and on and on, has there been anything?

  8. says

    Some background on Gladwell.

    What I didn’t know, when I wrote this, is that it was originally spoken, not written. So I’m probably wrong and he really is that big an asshole.

    That would be my guess, even aside from my prior knowledge of him. I tend to think that writing fiction (especially with some version of yourself as protagonist), memoirs, or reminiscences tends to liberate the subconscious, freeing the inner asshole.*

    * This is why in my view you should never write fiction with a version of yourself as protagonist, unless you intend to be pretty ruthless in your presentation of that character.

  9. says

    anthrosciguy @ 7 – oh no. No no. No no no. It was just that the badness of the writing struck me, and I concluded it had to be intentional (because of the New Yorker).

  10. Mark Rahill says

    This is a transcript of something he did for The Moth, which requires stories to be “true and told without notes”.
    I understand the bad writing criticism, but could someone explain how he comes across as an “asshole” in those paragraphs? (I may have a higher than average asshole threshold)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *