Scathing Reviews Make Books Successful says Malcolm Gladwell’s New Book

Malcolm Gladwell — author of critically dissed and phenomenally popular books like Outliers, The Turning Point, and Blink — recently published a book discussing the troubled relationship between critics and popular authors. The prolific author who is known for turning conventional wisdom on its head has even decided to turn book title on its head, and has titled the book Hobbes and Calvin — an allusion on Calvin and Hobbes, a hugely popular comic strip by Bill Watterson.

In an interview Gladwell explain the significance of the title:

“Calvin is this kid — very creative, thinking out of the box, dreaming big — while Hobbes is the rational, cynical, critic who always has only bland facts to offer to the precocious genius of a kid. But whereas Calvin is loved by everyone, people are mostly uninterested in Hobbes’ cynicism, even when he’s pointing out facts. The thing is, people don’t need facts. They need theories that explain facts, however bizarre the theories may look like. That’s the central analogy”

gladwell_smileOne of the chapters in the book: “The Unimportance of Being Alexander Pope”, discusses how critics are unimportant to the market failure of the writer. Alexander Pope’s who wrote An Essay on Criticism was a poet/writer. He had demoted lines from Shakespearean material to footnotes, arguing that they were so “excessively bad” that Shakespeare could never have written them. The lines which were promptly restored by others and are part of the highly successful Shakespearean legacy, but in his time Shakespeare was dismissed by critics as being showy and melodramatic.

Whereas, claims Gladwell, most book that fail, fail due to factors entirely unrelated to positive critical reception, critical success is strongly correlated to critics dissing the books and/or authors. Sighting famous examples such as Steven Pinker and other intellectual/critics having a positive contribution to his book sells through their scathing criticisms, Gladwell drives home the point that critical dismissal is a blessing in disguise for a writer because “it sets the writer free from his/her ego” — a necessary adjustment that separates good writers from successful writers.

Of course, Gladwell does not believe that criticism itself is enough to make an author successful. He in fact gives counter-examples of authors who have failed miserably despite stellar criticisms. What separates successful authors from failures, he explains, is how they deal with criticism. They can look at the criticism objectively, see that the critics are factually correct in their criticisms, and try and change their writings to work around the weaknesses pointed out by the critics. Or they can look at critical input as things they need to ignore, and concentrate on things critics have not talked about. The former approach, Gladwell believes, is the way to anonymity in writing world. “If the things that critics talk about were of such an important, fixing them would have made those critics highly successful writers”, he says pointing out the futility, “but if you look at the literary world, most critics are failed writers, so obviously things critics concentrate on are not relevant to success of books”.

In Hobbes and Calvin, Gladwell recommends the second approach: use criticisms to decide what not to concentrate on. “Knowing what is not a problem clears up your mind to look for actual problems. Most successful writers do that subconsciously”.

The book has received cautiously negative reviews as reviewers are worried a scathing review will make it a huge success, proving the central point of the book.

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