Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Our Bad Media

Malcolm in the Middle

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Malcolm Gladwell

Last week, the journalism blog Our Bad Media accused the author Malcolm Gladwell of lapses in reporting that it alleged fell just short of plagiarism. In multiple instances, Gladwell took details in his pieces for The New Yorker, without attribution, from sources that were the only possible places where such information could have been obtained. For instance, an anecdote about the construction of the Troy-Greenfield railroad was based closely an academic article by the historian John Sawyer, which isn’t readily available online, and which includes facts that appear nowhere else. Gladwell doesn’t mention Sawyer anywhere. And while it’s hard to make a case that any of this amounts to plagiarism in the strictest sense, it’s undeniably sloppy, as well as a disservice to readers who might want to learn more. In a statement responding to the allegations, New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote:

The issue is not really about Malcolm. And, to be clear, it isn’t about plagiarism. The issue is an ongoing editorial challenge known to writers and editors everywhere—to what extent should a piece of journalism, which doesn’t have the apparatus of academic footnotes, credit secondary sources? It’s an issue that can get complicated when there are many sources with overlapping information. There are cases where the details of an episode have passed into history and are widespread in the literature. There are cases that involve a unique source. We try to make judgments about source attribution with fairness and in good faith. But we don’t always get it right…We sometimes fall short, but our hope is always to give readers and sources the consideration they deserve.

Remnick’s response is interesting on a number of levels, but I’d like to focus on one aspect: the idea that after a certain point, details “have passed into history,” or, to quote Peter Canby, The New Yorker‘s own director of fact checking, a quote or idea can “escape its authorship” after it has been disseminated widely enough. In some cases, there’s no ambiguity over whether a fact has the status of public information; if we want to share a famous story about Immanuel Kant’s work habits, for instance, we don’t necessarily need to trace the quote back to where it first appeared. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have something like a quotation from a particular interview with a living person, which ought to be attributed to its original source, and which Gladwell has occasionally failed to do. And in the middle, we have a wild gray area of factual information that might be considered common property, but which has only appeared in a limited number of places. Evidently, there’s a threshold—or, if you like, a tipping point—at which a fact or quote has been cited enough to take on a life of its own, and the real question is when that moment takes place.

Ian McEwan

It’s especially complicated in genres like fiction and narrative nonfiction, which, as Remnick notes, lack the scholarly apparatus of more academic writing. A few years ago, Ian McEwan fell into an absurd controversy over details in Atonement that were largely derived from a memoir by the wartime nurse Lucilla Andrews. McEwan credits Andrews in his acknowledgments, and his use of such materials inspired a ringing defense from none other than Thomas Pynchon:

Unless we were actually there, we must turn to people who were, or to letters, contemporary reporting, the encyclopedia, the Internet, until, with luck, at some point, we can begin to make a few things of our own up. To discover in the course of research some engaging detail we know can be put into a story where it will do some good can hardly be classed as a felonious act—it is simply what we do.

You could argue, on a similar level, that assimilating information and presenting it in a readable form is simply what Gladwell does, too. Little if anything that Gladwell writes is based on original research; he’s a popularizer, and a brilliant one, who compiles ideas from other sources and presents them in an attractive package. The result shades into a form of creative writing, rather than straight journalism, and at that point, the attribution of sources indeed starts to feel like a judgment call.

But it also points to a limitation in the kind of writing that Gladwell does so well. As I’ve pointed out in my own discussion of the case of Jonah Lehrer, whose transgressions were significantly more troubling, there’s tremendous pressure on writers like Gladwell—a public figure and a brand name as much as a writer—to produce big ideas on a regular basis. At times, this leads him to spread himself a little too thin; a lot of his recent work consists of him reading a single book and delivering its insights with a Gladwellian twist. At his best, he adds real value as a synthesizer and interpreter, but he’s also been guilty of distorting the underlying material in his efforts to make it digestible. And a great deal of what makes his pieces so seductive lies in the fact that so much of the process has been erased: they come to us as seamless products, ready for a TED talk, that elide the messy work of consolidation and selection. If Gladwell was more open about his sources, he’d be more useful, but also less convincing. Which may be why the tension between disclosure and readability that Remnick describes is so problematic in his case. Gladwell really ought to show his work, but he’s made it this far precisely because he doesn’t.

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