In his 2004 New Yorker article “The Ketchup Conundrum,” Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of Jim Wigon, a hapless food entrepreneur trying to market his gourmet brand of World’s Best ketchup against the Heinz ketchup juggernaut. “He starts with red peppers, Spanish onions, garlic, and a high-end tomato paste,” Gladwell writes of Wigon’s rebel ketchup recipe.
Basil is chopped by hand, because the buffalo chopper bruises the leaves. He uses maple syrup, not corn syrup, which gives him a quarter of the sugar of Heinz. He pours his ketchup into a clear glass ten-ounce jar, and sells it for three times the price of Heinz, and for the past few years he has crisscrossed the country, peddling World’s Best in six flavors – regular, sweet, dill, garlic, caramelized onion, and basil – to specialty grocery stores and supermarkets.
Despite all this loving attention to culinary detail, Gladwell tells us, Wigon is destined to fail because unlike the many varieties of mustard and other food products whose popularity skews widely among different palates, Heinz ketchup is that near perfect food, balancing the five major taste areas – sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami – and beloved by toddlers so famously averse to trying new foods.
“The Ketchup Conundrum” is itself the Heinz ketchup of magazine feature articles: a near perfect example of the form, balancing wit, erudition, good reporting, vivid characters, and terrific storytelling to explore a conundrum so glaring you never thought to wonder about it. Journalism like this made Gladwell famous, but Gladwell himself has more or less stopped doing this kind of journalism. In the case of “The Ketchup Conundrum,” he asked a great question and found a bunch of smart, quirky experts to help him answer it. In his latest book, David and Goliath, out this week, he appears to have started with an answer and then gone looking for people to prove him right. All too often these days, the same thing happens when he contributes articles to the New Yorker.
In David and Goliath, as in his earlier books, Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, Gladwell displays a fondness for the classical essay form: He begins with an introduction followed by an explicit thesis statement, then sets out to prove his case with evidence, typically a variety of wildly divergent case studies taken from history or contemporary life larded with statistics and findings from economics and the social sciences. This structure suits Gladwell’s purpose, first, because it is instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever taken a college composition course, and second, because the form, which has its roots in the Enlightenment, carries with it a veneer of dispassionate scientific inquiry.
The thesis of David and Goliath, a book about the limits of power and the power of limitations, is as follows: “There is a set of advantages that have to do with material resources, and there is a set that have to do with the absence of material resources – and the reason underdogs win as often as they do is that the latter is sometimes every bit the equal of the former.” As is often the case, Gladwell works up to this carefully, as if he were about to argue that, No, in fact the earth is flat, but his assertion is not as counter-intuitive as he seems to think. Any American who grew up during or shortly after the Vietnam War – which is to say, the great majority of Gladwell’s readers – will surely recognize that a small, determined foe can quite often defeat a larger, lumbering opponent. But given our recent history of military misadventures and fiscal hubris, perhaps it’s a lesson that bears repeating.
In his first chapter, adapted from a 2009 New Yorker article, Gladwell follows a team of twelve-year-old “little blond girls” from Silicon Valley, who despite having little to no basketball experience, end up at a national championship tournament. Their coach, Vivek Ranadivé, an Indian-born software engineer who has himself never played basketball, is appalled by the way American teams play the game, retreating back to their half of the court after each basket, thereby ceding three-quarters of the court to their opponents. If his team of inexperienced non-athletes plays this way, which reinforces the strengths of the better players, Ranadivé knows they will lose. So instead they play a full-court press, contesting all ninety-four feet of the court, and begin steamrolling far more talented opponents.
The chapter allows Gladwell to offer a deft demonstration of how culture can unwittingly favor the powerful – how else to explain why even losing teams cede three-quarters of the court to more talented foes? – but also a neat parable of why hard-working immigrants have done so well in American universities and in Silicon Valley. Gladwell is too subtle a writer to spell this out, but it is clear that Ranadivé’s bafflement with the traditional way of playing basketball and his emphasis on relentless physical conditioning to wear out opponents is of a piece with his success in the software business.
Gladwell takes this lovely little story and runs with it, setting the tale of Ranadivé’s unlikely basketball stars alongside a history of Lawrence of Arabia’s use of guerrilla tactics to help his ragtag force of Bedouin tribesmen to defeat a larger, better-armed Turkish Army during World War I. Combining these cases, Gladwell shows not only why underdog strategies work, but also why so few underdogs try them: “Underdog strategies are hard.” To win, underdogs have to reconceptualize the task before them in ways that play to their strengths, take huge risks, and work harder than their opponents. Most people – Gladwell doesn’t say it, but it’s clear we are meant to read: most lazy, overprivileged Americans – prefer to lose easy than to win hard.
But from this point on, things go downhill, fast. In chapter after chapter, Gladwell cherry-picks data, uses results from one set of circumstances to draw unsupported conclusions about other sets of circumstances, soft pedals counter-explanations, and sets up false comparisons. Early on, for instance, he compares a young woman who drops out of a highly competitive science program at an Ivy League school to the difficulties faced by Impressionist painters trying to gain respect from the French art establishment, arguing that, in both cases, those involved suffered from being small fish in a big pond.
I would never suggest, as Gladwell does, that a student aim one rung lower than she is qualified for to avoid feeling overwhelmed by her fellow students, but at least that’s an argument one can make. But one can’t argue that the Impressionists suffered because they couldn’t get anybody to pay attention to their work. It’s simply not true. As Gladwell himself notes, when Edouard Manet’s painting of a prostitute, titled Olympia, was displayed in 1865 at the famous Salon held every year at the Palais de l’Industrie, it “sent all of Paris into an uproar. Guards had to be placed around the painting to keep the crowds of spectators at bay.” The Impressionists weren’t small fish in a big pond; they were blowing up the pond.
But for me, the book’s most troubling section deals with California’s 1994 Three Strikes law, which, until it was partially repealed last year, forced judges to hand out 25-year sentences after a third offense, even if the third offense was as minor as stealing a few slices of pizza. Crime plummeted in California after the Three Strikes law passed, but as Gladwell rightly points out, crime rates “also came tumbling down in many other parts of the United States in the same period, even in places that didn’t crack down on crime at all.” He cites conflicting studies on the impact of the Three Strikes law, and concludes “[t]he state of California conducted the greatest penal experiment in American history, and after twenty years and tens of billions of dollars, nobody could ascertain whether that experiment did any good.”
He’s right, of course. I grew up in California, and I voted against Three Strikes in 1994. So I would be inclined to agree with Gladwell except that it reminded me of a chapter from The Tipping Point on New York City’s so-called Broken Windows style of policing, made famous by Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In New York City, just as in California, crime seemed out of control. In both cases, the government got tough on even the most minor offenses, and crime rates plummeted. Of course, crime dropped everywhere else at the same time, and nobody really knows why. But in The Tipping Point, because Broken Windows fit Gladwell’s thesis, Giuliani and his police commissioner were heroes who brought a great city back from the brink of chaos, while in David and Goliath, because Three Strikes doesn’t fit his thesis, supporters of the law are guilty of costly and heartless government overreach.
I began David and Goliath more or less ignoring Gladwell’s preface dealing with the Biblical story of the battle between the lowly shepherd and the mighty Philistine. His pseudoscientific take on the tale is absurd even by Gladwellian standards, rife with wild suppositions treated as accepted fact. But I ended the book sensing that Gladwell’s choice to begin the book this way is telling. For one thing, it’s ur-Gladwell. Over and over in his books and New Yorker pieces, he portrays himself as a nettlesome outsider, a sort of notepad-wielding shepherd boy flinging stones – odd facts, little-known studies, startling graphs, moving stories – at a world of oafish Philistines who don’t understand the quirky counter-intuitiveness of it all.
More important, though, it helped me see that despite his classical essay structure and all the charts and graphs and interviews with eminent scientists, Gladwell isn’t interested in science. He isn’t interested in facts. He’s interested in stories. Gladwell’s books shouldn’t be read as arguments based in evidence, but as parables based in neo-liberal orthodoxy. One can’t read David and Goliath, particularly the later chapters dealing with the overreach of entrenched power, without thinking of the Bush years, of the War on Terror and Gitmo, of mortgage-backed securities and Lehman Brothers, of “Mission Accomplished” and Osama bin Laden in the Tora Bora. Gladwell never takes any of these subjects on directly, but David and Goliath often reads as one long parable against the folly of ignoring the limits of American might and power. And I agree with him. But I want to be right because I’m actually right, not because the guys on my side are better at telling stories. Stories are easy. Facts are hard. I want facts.
It feels like this happened last week though it actually happened twenty years ago. Late one wintry afternoon in 1992 I found myself sitting on a sofa in a glass box in midtown Manhattan, trying to figure out how I could possibly stay awake till sundown. I had just enjoyed a long celebratory liquid lunch with Gary Fisketjon, who would soon be publishing my first novel and who, as I’d learned first-hand, is a master of an art that was then dying and is now all but dead – the art of editing fiction, line by agonizing line. Gary had gone over every word of my 362-page manuscript with a green Bic ballpoint pen, sometimes suggesting surgical cuts or ways to improve dialog, sometimes writing long insightful paragraphs on the back of a page. He stressed that these were merely suggestions, that the final call was mine, always. If I had to guess, I would say he improved my book at least by half. As I sat there on the sofa in Gary’s office, my fogged eyes started roaming across his bookshelves…
(As I re-read the preceding paragraph, I realize it’s about ancient history, a long-lost time when book editors actually edited books and they were encouraged to keep their authors fed and watered on the company dime. That paragraph also reminds me of something John Cheever wrote in the 1970s – that his first stories, published in the years after World War II, were “stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.” Gary Fisketjon’s industrious green Bic pen seems even more remote to me from a distance of twenty years than those 1940s radios and stationery stores seemed to John Cheever from a distance of thirty years.)
…so anyway, my fogged eyes landed on a slim volume with one word on its spine: Jernigan. I got up off the sofa, crossed the small office and picked up the book. On the dust jacket the blurry figure of a man stands on a lawn in front of a suburban house. At first I thought it was the liquid lunch affecting my vision, but then I realized the picture was intentionally fuzzy. “What’s this?” I asked.
“That’s a first novel I brought out last year by a wonderful writer named David Gates,” Gary said. “Sonny Mehta, my boss, loves one-word titles. Go ahead, take it.”
I took it. I read it. I loved it. It’s the story of a messed-up guy from the New Jersey suburbs named Peter Jernigan who works a boring job in Manhattan real estate and is dealing with his wife’s death in an automobile accident by dosing himself with gin and Pamprin as his life falls apart. He ends up sleeping with the single mom of his teenage son’s girlfriend. The woman is a survivalist who keeps rabbits in her basement (for meat, not as pets). One day, in an effort to snap out of his spiritual numbness, Jernigan presses the barrel of a gun to the webbing between the thumb and index finger of his left hand, then squeezes the trigger. I’ll carry that image in my head as long as I live.
Ever since I fell in love with Jernigan I’ve been drawn to books with one-word titles – partly because Sonny Mehta loves one-word titles, but mainly because they can be so enviably concise and memorable, so perfect. At their best, one-word titles distill content to its purest essence, which is what all titles strive to do, and then they stick in the mind. Sometimes, of course, they fall flat, and much of the time they’re just lukewarm and vague or, worse, falsely grand.
Over the years I’ve developed categories and a pecking order. Here is my unscientific and by no means exhaustive taxonomy, beginning with the best and ending with the worst kinds of one-word book titles:
1. An Unforgettable Character’s Name
This category begins for me with Jernigan but also includes:
Shakespeare’s Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet (for the last title in this trio of masterpieces I wish he’d gone with Yorick, that “fellow of infinite jest,” which no doubt puts me in a minority of one).
Walker Percy’s Lancelot (the wife-murdering narrator in a nuthouse, Lancelot Andrewes Lamar says many wise and funny things about the decline of America, such as: “What nuns don’t realize is that they look better in nun clothes than in J.C. Penney pantsuits.”)
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (the nymphet who became an icon).
Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree (not my favorite of his novels – that would be Blood Meridian – but the things Cornelius Suttree and his roughneck Tennessee riverfront buddies do while under the influence of alcohol give a whole new kick to the word “debauched”).
Jane Austen’s Emma (I might think Emma Woodhouse is a meddling, coddled ninny, but I wouldn’t dream of saying so).
Stephen King’s Carrie (you’ve got to respect a girl who gets drenched in pig’s blood at the prom and then goes on a telekinetic rampage), Christine (what’s not to love about a homicidal Plymouth Fury?), and It (that maniac clown Pennywise deserves such a tersely dismissive moniker).
2. Place Names That Drip With Atmosphere
Elmore Leonard’s Djibouti (just saying the word makes it possible to conjure a place full of pirates, thugs, widowmakers, scorching sunshine, and tourists with a death wish; Leonard is a serial user of one-word titles, including the less memorable Raylan, Pronto, Killshot, Touch, Bandits, Glitz, Stick, Gunsights, Swag, and Hombre).
Gore Vidal’s Duluth (alluring precisely because it’s so imprecise – what could possibly be interesting about a Minnesota port town on Lake Superior? Plenty. Vidal is another serial user of one-word titles, including Williwaw, Messiah, Kalki, Creation, Burr, Lincoln, Hollywood, and Empire).
Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (that exclamation point befits the over-the-top setting, a fading alligator theme park in the moist loins of Florida).
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (your first thought is Biblical – balm of Gilead or Mount Gilead – but the title of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the name of a town in Iowa where the God-infused protagonist, a dying preacher, is writing a long letter to his young son; Robinson’s other novels are titled Housekeeping and Home).
Geoffrey Wolff’s Providence (this title, like all good titles, has layers of meaning: the novel is set in the crumbling capital of Rhode Island – “a jerkwater that outsiders bombed past on their way to Cape Cod” – but this Providence is visited by surprising gusts of divine providence, God’s inscrutable ways of touching a menagerie of less-than-perfect characters, including mobsters, thieves, patrician lawyers, cokeheads, and crooked cops).
Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (alas, the title refers to a fictional hippie outpost in northern California, not to that sweaty little armpit in the New Jersey pine barrens – now that would have been a ripe setting for a Pynchon novel).
Marshall Frady’s Southerners (fluorescent non-fiction about the people who inhabit a haunted place, it’s one of my all-time favorite books).
Then, on the downside, there’s James Michener’s Hawaii (a title that’s about as evocative as a pushpin on a map, much like his other generic place-name titles – Chesapeake, Alaska, Poland, Texas, Mexico, and Space).
3. One Little Word That Sums Up Big Consequences
Josephine Hart’s Damage (edited by Sonny Mehta, the novel’s title deftly sums up what results when a member of the British Parliament develops an obsessive sexual relationship with his son’s fiancee; Jeremy Irons, at his absolute smarmy best, plays the MP in the movie version of the book. Hart, who died last year, also published the novels Sin and Oblivion).
James Dickey’s Deliverance (refers to what it feels like to return home to the Atlanta suburbs after surviving a nice relaxing canoe trip in the Georgia woods that turns into a nightmare of hillbilly sodomy and murder).
Martin Amis’ novel Money (a raunchy hymn to the lubricant that greased the Reagan/Thatcher decade, it’s bursting with the things that made America great – “fast food, sex shows, space games, slot machines, video nasties, nude mags, drink, pubs, fighting, television, handjobs”); and his memoir Experience (with a cover that says it all: the future bad boy of Brit letters as a pre-teen towhead, with a scowl on his face and an unlit cigarette plugged between his lips).
William S. Burroughs’ Junky (though written under a pseudonym, the title of this highly autobiographical 1953 novel refers to what you will become if you inject heroin into your veins on a regular basis; a sequel, Queer, was written earlier but not published until 1985).
Harry Crews’ Car (you are what you eat, and Herman Mack, in a twist that out-Christines Christine, sets out to eat a 1971 Ford Maverick from bumper to bumper; rest in peace, Harry Crews).
4. Words That Ache So Hard To Become Brands You Can Practically See Them Sweat
The absolute pinnacle of this bottom-of-the-birdcage category is half-smart Malcolm Gladwell’s runaway bestseller Blink (as in, how long it takes for us to develop supposedly accurate first impressions; for a much more nuanced and intelligent treatment of this fascinating subject, check out Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow).
Not far behind is right-wing goddess Ann Coulter’s Godless (an attempt to prove that liberalism is America’s state religion and its tin gods are recycling, Darwinism, global warming, gay rights, abortion rights, and teachers’ unions. According to this harridan-hottie, “The following sentence makes sense to liberals: President Clinton saved the Constitution by repeatedly ejaculating on a fat Jewish girl in the Oval Office.” Low blow! Monica Lewinsky wasn’t fat!)
Robin Cook’s Contagion (possibly a Freudian slip, the title might refer to what all brand-name authors like Cook secretly hope their books will induce in readers: a rapidly spreading, uncontrollable itch to spend money on schlock).
5. One-Letter Titles
You can’t get any poorer than dead, as Flannery O’Connor reminded us, and if you’re a book title you can’t be any more concise than a single letter. Writers who have boiled the contents of their books down to a single letter tend to be in the high-literary camp, which would seem to suggest, counter-intuitively, that one-letter titles are the work of expansive, not reductive, imaginations. Here are a few, from A to Z:
Andy Warhol’s A (you’d have to be zonked on some killer shit to make any sense of this gibberish, but let’s be charitable and remember that Warhol was a great artist).
Fred Chappell’s C (this writer of glorious poetry and fiction is celebrated in his native South but criminally under-appreciated in other quarters of the country; his title is taken from the Roman numeral for 100, which is the number of poems in this superb collection).
Tom McCarthy’s C (the third letter of the alphabet is used more nebulously in this novel, which brims with cats, cocaine, cocoons, and code as it travels to Cairo with a protagonist named Serge Carrefax; McCarthy’s first novel was titled Remainder).
John Updike’s S. (it’s the initial of the novel’s protagonist, Sarah Worth, part superwoman and part slut, a disaffected wife who leaves her husband and her home on the North Shore to pursue her guru at a commune in the Arizona desert).
Thomas Pynchon’s V. (no, Pynchon’s first novel is not Vineland minus the i-n-e-l-a-n-d; it’s a woman’s initial, or is it the shape the two storylines make as they converge?).
Georges Perec’s W (the name of an allegorical island off the coast of Chile that resembles a concentration camp).
Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z (the last word, or letter, on political thrillers, it’s about the 1963 assassination of leftist Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis; Costa-Gavras made it into a hit movie starring Yves Montand).
In closing, I should note that seven of the 32 books on the current New York Times hardcover fiction and non-fiction best-seller lists – a healthy 22 percent – have one word titles: to wit: Betrayal, Drift, Imagine, Wild, Unbroken, Quiet, and Imperfect. Turns out Sonny Mehta was on to something. Concision, like sex, always sells.
Did you think the title of the most recent book you read could’ve been improved if it had been a bit more straightforward? Then Better Book Titles is for you. Among their more inspired retitlings: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Gay Jewish Magicians Kill Nazis), Blink (Everyone is Racist), and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (The First Book I’ve Read in Six Years).
This morning’s David Brooks column has reinvigorated my long-running discomfort with pop-intellectuals. “We’re entering an era of epic legislation,” his column begins. “There are at least five large problems that will compel the federal government to act in gigantic ways over the next few years.” The bold assertion is a classic move of the pop-intellectual, who I think of as one who puts forth an idea as a new idea while lacking expertise in the field in which that idea would carry weight. The blending of disciplines is also a tell-tale pop-intellecual trait, and in the opening of his column, Brooks presents as a historian, a sociologist, and a political scientist, even though he is in fact none of the above.One thing I always think about when I read pop-intellectuals like Brooks or Malcolm Gladwell (if Brooks is prince of the practice, Gladwell is king), is the shift over the last couple centuries or so from lay intellectualism to professional intellectualism (I’m not an intellectual historian and I don’t know exactly where to date it – in my mind the the change took place concurrently with the the rise of method, around about the time of Darwin). Two hundred years ago it was good enough to be a well-educated citizen with a ruminative soul and you could write with authority about anything – philosophy, history, the natural world. Now to be taken seriously on any of those topics, to be seen as adding to our store of knowledge, you have to have a PhD and work in a university. In part, the change is due to the overall increase in knowledge – it required less learning to be an expert in mathematics a hundred years ago than it does now – but more than that, the change reflects the modern insight that learning shaped by disciplines simply produces better knowledge.Journalists like Brooks and Gladwell can still add value by bringing academic discoveries to the public, but books like Bobos in Paradise and Blink make me cringe for the lack of rigor with which they synthesize anecdotes to produce new ideas. The problem is not so much the content, benign as it usually is, but the methods. Brooks’ column, for example, actually promotes a tendency opposite of the one he intends. It makes people less effectively thoughtful, not more.