Finding a Voice

So it’s 1996, about ten and a half years after the party in Washington D.C.’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood in the rented apartment where the young pishers Malcolm Gladwell and Jacob Weisberg formed a lifelong bond.

To see just how young these guys were, check out this interview with Weisberg when he was an intern at The New Republic way back in 1986.

That party is the event where Gladwell spoke with Jefferson Morley about Starrett City in Brooklyn, New York, the development that turned away minority applicants because of a theory published in Scientific American in 1957 and a mathematical model that predicted the 30 percent minority tipping point for “white flight.” The whole tipping thing has been marinating in the recesses of Gladwell’s brain since reading Morley’s Double Reverse Discrimination in TNR back in 1984. It’s time is coming…

In 1996, Gladwell’s a newbie at The New Yorker. He’s written some solid stuff for the magazine in just his first few months. FYI, a one-year contract as a staff writer at The New Yorker requires delivery of about 50,000 words, or 12 pieces, one per month or so. But in practical terms, delivery of content is loosey-goosey.

On purpose.

Writers serve at the pleasure of their editors who of course serve at the pleasure of their publishers who, if they don’t own the house or magazine themselves, serve at the pleasure of their CEO or Board of Directors. All of which is to say that as long as your boss: 1) knows who you are; 2) has no internal cringe when your name is mentioned and 3) believes that you are pulling your scull for the company boat in sync and with vigor…whether you technically deliver the specific number of words per year is of little consequence.

Within reason of course.

George W.S. Trow was one New Yorker staff writer who’d played the fair-haired boy for editor William Shawn way past his wunderkind expiration date. He didn’t publish much after Within the Context of No Context, preferring to cling to his high end/big think reputation as he kept himself warm and comfortable  inside the editorial boathouse. When Trow resigned in a public kerfuffle about how the barbarians had at last overrun the literary castle with Tina Brown’s appointment as editor, Ms. Brown’s wonderful reaction, reported by the American Journalism Review, outed Trow as more magazine mascot than indispensable contributor. Here’s Ms. Brown’s response:

I am distraught at your defection, but since you never actually write anything, I should say I am notionally distraught.

But to say that staff writers at magazines don’t sweat their contractually stipulated word counts would be a gross prevarication. The only thing a long form journalist fears more than never getting to the big show (and The New Yorker is The New York Yankees of literary magazines)…is getting there and then screwing the pooch. Making it and then getting fired.

So my gut tells me that Malcolm Gladwell probably had a piece of paper tacked up on his virtual corkboard above the writing desk of his mind with the following notations:

  1. 3205 words—Blowup
  2. 2793 words—Loopholes for Living
  3. 5260 words—Black Like Them

It’s May 1996 and he’s 11,258 words into his 50,000 annual word nut. Many miles to go before he sleeps…

But his three pieces are very much of a kind. He’s figured out what fiction writers would call his “voice,” which is the mark of the pro.

The voice is a writer’s must-have security blanket. Once a writer “finds” his voice, work is no longer about overcoming a complete lack of confidence in one’s ability to hold a reader’s interest. That is, you’re not trying to imitate someone else in order to create narrative drive anymore. You know that writing like Tom Wolfe or Gay Talese when you’re a Canadian from Nowheresville, Ontario will never work. You know that because you tried doing it so unsuccessfully for so long that you reached a point of such desperation that you quit trying to be someone else and actually wrote as yourself. And that’s when someone other than your mother actually paid attention.

So you kept doing that and more people caught on…and here you are.

Now what the work is about after you have stopped running away from your own peculiar way with words is finding enough interesting things to say about something. Not “interesting” for the reader per se. But “interesting” for yourself. Every single pro writer I know is all about finding material that will obsess him or her.

If they find it, they’re fine. They’ll make deadline. They’ll be able to be nice to their wives and kids or boyfriends or cats or whatever.

But if they’re struggling to care about something…they’re in trouble. And so is everyone and everything around them. Watch out dinner table! And if you find yourself around such a writer, don’t even think of asking if “something’s wrong.”

Because “Nothing is wrong…when everything is wrong.  Don’t you understand Goddamnit!”

This is one of the reasons why “assignment writing” sucks. Even though it can pay the rent and even more depending upon your connections. What may interest an editor intent on getting something “5,000 wordish on the plight of the Iguana in Papua New Guinea for the special fall edition on ecology” could very well bore the shit out of a writer. This is why around the same time as Gladwell was cutting his teeth at The New Yorker…when I was an editor at Doubleday and asked Steven Pressfield to write me up another epic historical war novel to follow up Gates of Fire…Pressfield politely (actually not so politely) told me to go fuck myself. I knew immediately thereafter that this was a guy I needed to work with no matter what.  And he came around in the end and wrote a novel that I think is far more accomplished than his calling card.

But I digress.

Gladwell’s ten thousand hours as a beat reporter for The Washington Post combined with his early days at American Spectator and Insight and as a moonlighter fleshing out long form think pieces for Washington Monthly and The New Republic by 1996 have taught him how to write as himself. And he now feels confident (as he should) that he can translate his own particular interests and passions into pieces that a certain Beltway/New York/East Coast intelligentsia readership will enjoy.

What is the quality of Gladwell’s “voice?”  It’s easy to discern just from his first three New Yorker pieces.

Blowup is a story that debunks the notion that we can micromanage big systems to eventually reach risk-free perfection. The controlling idea of the piece is little things can have huge effects. Gladwell hammers home this message using the O-ring failure in the space shuttle Challenger explosion to explain that it was just one of a myriad of little things that could have gone wrong. The fact that all of the rockets don’t blow up is remarkable.

Loopholes for Living is ostensibly a standard book review assignment. Gladwell covers two books inside similar legal terrain (Ill Gotten Gains: Evasion, Blackmail, Fraud, and Kindred Puzzles of the Law by Leo Katz, University of Chicago Press, May 1996; and Integrity by Stephen L. Carter, Basic Books, HarperCollins, February 1996). But I suspect Gladwell wasn’t handed these two books and asked to review them for The New Yorker’s book section because they were “hot” titles. According to Bookscan, Ill Gotten Gains has sold 311 total copies since 2002, while Integrity has sold 7,825 which means nothing about either book’s merit of course but it’s reasonable to assume that Tina Brown wasn’t being bombarded with phone calls from their publishers to review the titles either. These books are strictly “mid-list” nonfiction stuck in backs of catalogs.

But Gladwell found and read them on his own. And then he figured out a “way in” that he could use to examine something he personally found interesting—the squishy world of rationalizing our not so magnanimous behavior. He pitched the piece, got approval and then nailed another controlling idea that he’d been poking at for years—conventional thinking is prejudicial and lazy.

Gladwell has held that view since way back in High School. His Ad Hominem: a Journal of Slander and Critical Opinion was a political newsletter he started up and wrote as a teenager. According to an interview he did with J. Timothy Hunt for the Ryerson Review of Journalism in 1999, the ‘zine would focus on “a thing that appeals to a person’s feelings of prejudice rather than his intellect…The rule was that every article had to attack someone personally, says Gladwell. I wrote a column called ‘The Moral Pejorative.’”

Black Like Them was a piece that extended Gladwell’s range, a courageous writing act that added an unconventional autobiographical element to his arsenal. Rarely do you find journalists today sharing anything remotely associated with their private lives…that is without making a HUGE DEAL about it. Nonfiction writers either give you it all in confessional memoir or nothing.

Rarely do they use their own life experiences as simply interstitial tissue to tell a larger story. They’re either THE STORY or they’re not there at all.   By relating a are “positive” experience coping with racism straight out of his extended family and an “amusing anecdote” of his own about the stupidity of the whole bugaboo, Gladwell was able to explore another idea stuck in his brain’s craw—that context doesn’t just influence human behavior, it can actually be the direct cause of it.

That is, we can’t help but act differently under disorienting circumstances or surroundings. What’s at the heart of Gladwell’s thinking about race (and what he’ll also put forth about crime in his next piece) is a quote from the antagonist Noah Cross in Robert Towne and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.  (You know it always comes back to Chinatown for me)

…most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of ANYTHING.

Gladwell being Gladwell, though, instead of taking us into the heart of darkness of crime, he tells us an extraordinary story about how changing the context of a neighborhood for the better creates something of a miracle.

And the neighborhood he chooses to concentrate when telling that story?

It’s none other than the 5.6 square mile zone patrolled by New York’s Seven Five (75) precinct. This is the police department tasked with East New York, Canarsie and The Starrett City development…the very same neighborhoods Jefferson Morley wrote about in “Double Reverse Discrimination” in 1984.


More on Starrett City and how I suspect it profoundly influenced Gladwell’s thinking about Tipping Points next.

19 comments on “Finding a Voice

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    Just wow!

  2. Jack Price says:

    Great piece. You seem to be writing at least 200,000 words a year, and that’s just the stuff we see. At that rate, you could hold down four gigs at The New Yorker. And should. Who else would bring us words like kerfuffle, scull, and pisher?

    1. Joel D Canfield says:

      Came down here to say the same thing (one of us is clearly redundant.) Loved that use of “scull” and had to look up “pishers” for crying out loud. When’s the last time I learned a new word?

  3. It’s incredibly helpful, Shawn, to read about finding one’s own unique voice with Gladwell as the example. His voice is so wonderful and very appealing.

    I find reading about the area of slander/libel equalling as appealing especially considering the following quote:

    “The rule was that every article had to attack someone personally, says Gladwell.”

    Can you comment on where the line is between what’s allowed and what’s not, between what’s safe and what can land a writer in hot water?

    Thanks as always for your wonderful posts and follow-up comments!

  4. Joel D Canfield says:

    If you and Steve could reenact that conversation about “Gates of Fire II” I’d pay to see it.

    My wife is living with a writer who’s deep in the throes of Resistance right now. She’s a remarkably patient person when it comes to my whining and avoidance and lassitude. Maybe because I hardly cry at all when I’m like this. Not much.

    I can imagine the pain of owing a piece on “Commercial Applications of Tropical Fish in the Sahara” would cause me.

    1. Tina Goodman says:

      And don’t forget about all the baseball stuff. I don’t know anything about that, except it’s out of my league. 🙂

      1. Joel D Canfield says:

        Ha! Baseball joke about inside baseball.

  5. Tony Levelle says:

    Brilliant. And absolutely right. I’ll bet Gladwell is reading too, and finding this series an entertaining revelation.

  6. jim calocci says:

    great to have access to GLADWELL’S VOICE
    and look forward to the next installment of SHAWN COYNE’S VOICE
    thank you for making it available

  7. Chris Duel says:

    Incredibly helpful, practical and inspiring as always, Shawn.


  8. Mel Jacob says:

    Great to see the evolution of Gladwell’s work. Kudos to you Shawn.

  9. Patrick Maher says:

    Strikes me that Gladwell’s sweep of ideas has a focus – something to do with the arc between seeing and feeling direct experience of idiots at the tiller, then finding, everywhere he looks, clusters of morons making decisions about the lives of others, then finding little pieces of yarn to tease out detail by detail to unravel the whole darn pullover – the mask the powerful morons use to pull over our eyes.
    In almost every disaster, it is not the ‘grunt’ at the pointy end of an incident who is responsible but the hidden manager who issues edicts about profit. Mostly it’s not the pilot in the plane crash who is responsible, it’s a ‘management policy’ on saving fuel – or some-such. And so it goes and Gladwell sees right through the opaque mystifying mask of power. But as he sees the sleight of hand at play he also sees the possibilities and he names names – this deception, that thoughtlessness, that policy. Stupidity and fear evaporate when they hear their names. Gladwell knows their names.

  10. Talmage says:

    “Every single pro writer I know is all about finding material that will obsess him or her.”

    I’m so thankful to hear this because I’m usually in cloud nine writing on one of my pet issues, but if I stray, writing becomes work. I’m the same way with fiction, which unfortunately creates a preachy, didactic sound, but I don’t care. Obsession with an idea is one of two things that floats my boat as an amateur writer. 🙂

    1. Bill Dampier says:

      Amen. And when we stop finding it, we stop writing.

    2. Patrick Maher says:

      A good way to overcome that is to give the problem in your head to a character in your story and interview the character. Now you have the character’s voice teasing out your dilemma for you.

      1. Talmage says:

        Thanks, Patrick. I’ll give that a try.

  11. Wow. Hadn’t been keeping up with your blog and come back to this! Love this: Because “Nothing is wrong…when everything is wrong. Don’t you understand Goddamnit!”
    Thank you!

  12. Ellie says:

    Very interesting (and complex) analysis of the evolution of Gladwell finding his voice. Thanks so much for providing links to the 3 stories. It’s obvious he was was pulling from so many areas of his brain, but his point comes across clearly via his voice. Looking forward to hearing what’s next in this …

  13. Dalton White says:

    Voice or none, amateur or pro, ‘interesting’ for me leading to obsession struck chords of laughter and satisfaction. Even my wife laughed out loud. Apparently she knows exactly what kind of day I’m having. She never asks. She waits to see if I pay any attention to the dogs… Thanks Shawn for the validation, from all of us.

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