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Everyone likes a good story, and Gladwell tells us what it is in What the Dog Saw, a compilation of articles written for The New Yorker. He does not reveal the recipe of a 'good narrative' by lecturing his audience in a PowerPoint format on its ingredients and on the virtue of their carefully timed mixing, but rather he offers practical illustrations that unveil his skills as a writer. Most and foremost, Gladwell places himself in the shoes of a hypothetical reader who may be vaguely familiar with a specific subject matter (e.g., marketing of food products such as tomato sauce, the nature of criminal profiling, the workings of the stock market, etc.). He then asks himself a question that is central to the selected subject matter and for which an answer is not readily available without a substantial expertise. Since it is understood that both the reader and the writer lack the expertise to answer this critical question, Gladwell does what the reader expects him to do: he consults the experts. Here, the reader receives the opportunity to encounter characters that are as real as his/her neighbors and whose intellectual life and actions are as transparent as those that might belong to a long-time friend. More often than not, Gladwell uses the experts' testimonies to make explicit and then attack widespread beliefs that he demonstrates to be ostensibly false. The artful combination of the experts' points of view and background information regarding both subject matter and experts creates a timeline of discovery that demands the reader's attention. Generally, at some unexpected point in the author's narrative, an answer materializes in the form of a rather general statement to the question that motivated the narratives (e.g., How is a food product such as tomato sauce or ketchup developed and marketed to the American public?). These general statements open a window into the minds of participants and spectators alike. Some generalizations are so trite to be uncontroversial such as 'there is no one tomato sauce or one type of ketchup that can be marketed to all, but rather food products with slightly different combinations of ingredients that are appreciated by different audiences. Other generalizations, however, minimize aspects of a phenomenon (e.g., the benefits and costs of detection or prediction of a certain outcome) that some may consider critical to the understanding of the phenomenon (e.g., detection of weaponry from satellite views or prediction of performance). Thus, while generalizations feed the mind with certainties, inducing comforting thoughts, some become the object of controversy.
One recent review of Gladwell's narratives describes them as containing inaccuracies (NYT, November 15, 2009), stemming mainly from generalizations that the writer makes regarding the information provided by his interviewees or that the interviewees themselves make. Yet if one accepts Gladwell's premise that 'good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else's head', then what some experts consider stretched or crude generalizations of the evidence may not necessarily detract from the value of the author's narratives. Rather, they are means by which the author challenges the reader, making him/her want to go beyond the information given and question it. If a reader does not question the statements made by the author, then the text has failed to reach the goal that the author has set for his work. Of course, the source of this failure is in itself an interesting conundrum, one that deserves consideration as it refers to the expectations and standards of a particular readership. It also deserves consideration as it pertains to the challenges inherent to the task of illustrating the complexity of a phenomenon. In research involving the observation or manipulation of multiple factors, these challenges are well know. Selecting factors that are critical to an event and understanding how they interact with each other are not at all simple tasks, as the addition or the removal of one factor can considerably change any preexisting view of the phenomenon under study.
Notwithstanding audience-specific failures and the challenges of illustrating complexity in its different manifestations, an uncontroversial fact is that one of the most remarkable abilities of Gladwell, the writer, is that even readers who may not be initially interested in a subject matter are likely to want to know more about it after having read a few paragraphs of his writings. Gladwell's narratives appear instinctively to demand undivided attention and instill the desire to explore topics/issues that readers may otherwise overlook or consider worthy objects of examination in that neverland time of 'later'. His storylines, as much as PBS shows such as The Secrets of the Dead and History Detectors, fall into the sought-after class of intrinsically delightful learning activities (at least for me). To what can we attribute this response? Perhaps the reader's interest results from the transparency with which a subject matter is presented and/or the sophistication of the mind of the experts Gladwell selects. Interest may also result from the format of Gladwell's stories, resembling that of a jigsaw puzzle that someone may have bought some time ago and then abandoned in the attic of the reader's house. The numerous pieces appear to be intact, but the box with the solution is missing. Some initial curiosity in seeing the puzzle completed may exist, but the sheer number of pieces and time constraints appear to endorse the selection of alternative activities. Gladwell guides the undecided finder (i.e., reader), generating a powerful argument that his/her initial interest is to be satisfied. He does so by combining some pieces, the most critical ones, making the partial figure that is placed in front of the reader so compelling and intriguing that now attention is securely captured. Gladwell then adds skillfully and methodically most of the other pieces together; and by doing so, he satisfies in a piecemeal fashion the reader's demand to know. Yet the jigsaw puzzle never seems to be entirely finished. As attention is devoted to the developing picture, some areas of the puzzle appear to require more pieces than are actually available. Similarly, in Gladwell's narratives, collected evidence and answers are never terminal but rather generative of further inquiries.
Critics have said that in What the Dog Saw, no overriding theme exists, but merely a string of stories without a serious thematic connection. Yet all narratives included in What the Dog Saw share a main theme: the human mind and some of the most arduous to study qualities such as intuitiveness, swiftness, etc. Gladwell selects a diverse array of everyday experiences where practical applications of human cognition can be examined, and then he uses such experiences to ask important questions regarding the workings of the human mind. He goes so far as examining the cognition of dogs and the way that successful dog training depends critically on the human mind's ability to understand the operating principles of dogs' minds. Of course, the specific everyday experiences Gladwell selects are quite dissimilar, from decision-making in the stock market to the nature of successful dog training and advertizing campaigns. He focuses on equally diverse characters whose expertise is made discernible to the reader with plain testimonials of their thoughts and actions. The variety of Gladwell's inquiries may appear to some readers the mere byproduct of his desire to make his inquiries interesting to a broad audience. Yet they are the necessary condition for exploring the human mind whose diverse functioning can be fully understood only by examining the multitude of its applications. A keen observer of social sciences, Gladwell knows this fact well, notwithstanding all generalizations that may have rattled some of his readers.
© 2009 Maura Pilotti
Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Hunter College, New York