January 17, 2005

Judge Posner on "Blink" -- and The New Yorker style.

From Judge Posner's TNR review of Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink" (via Instapundit):
[T]his book ... is a series of loosely connected anecdotes, rich in "human interest" particulars but poor in analysis. There is irony in the book's blizzard of anecdotal details. One of Gladwell's themes is that clear thinking can be overwhelmed by irrelevant information, but he revels in the irrelevant. An anecdote about food tasters begins: "One bright summer day, I had lunch with two women who run a company in New Jersey called Sensory Spectrum." The weather, the season, and the state are all irrelevant. And likewise that hospital chairman Brendan Reilly "is a tall man with a runner's slender build." Or that "inside, JFCOM [Joint Forces Command] looks like a very ordinary office building.... The business of JFCOM, however, is anything but ordinary." These are typical examples of Gladwell's style, which is bland and padded with clich├ęs.
I just have to say: This isn't just a quirk of Gladwell's, this is The New Yorker. [ADDED: Gladwell is a longtime staff writer at The New Yorker.] Somebody, somewhere along the line at that magazine, a long time ago, decided the writer has to paint a picture for the reader. So whether you're interviewing a movie star or a scientist, you've got to give us some words about the person's face, what the room was like, what food was consumed, whether a dog trotted into the room. What was the reason for this stylistic policy? To thin down difficult material with easy-to-consume trivia? The readers are going to skim anyway, so what the hell? Make the nonfiction in the magazine more like the fiction for an overall, classy, literary effect?

If the literary style of The New Yorker irks Judge Posner, however, it may have something to do with his once having been the subject of a New Yorker profile. Let's read the very first paragraph, which is not about his intellectual contributions:
Richard Posner is introduced. He extends a limp hand, smiles tepidly, and says something polite. He is long and spare, his eyes pale as a fish, his clothing conventional, his features thin. He moves delicately; seeming to hover rather than stand: he has about him the distant, omniscient, ectoplasmic air of the butler in a haunted house. He escorts his visitor to the waiting room of his personality, where the visitor will sit, lulled by the bland ambience of the place, until it is time for murder.
I would love to have seen Posner's reaction as he sat down to read the article -- perhaps on one of his "inobtrusive" living-room sofas or chairs that are "upholstered in brown and mustard" and positioned on oriental rugs on wood floors that until recently were "covered with a wall-to-wall carpet of forest green." Limp hand! Fish eyes! Ectoplasmic air! The hell!

But do read Judge Posner's quite brilliant review of "Blink." He deftly detects Gladwell's liberal bias. Somehow Gladwell's anecdotes never show that those intuitive judgments he's so fond of might lead to race or sex discrimination. And read the New Yorker article about Judge Posner too. It's quite rich:
"My cat doesn't like me," he says mournfully. "This cat, to whom I am slavishly devoted. She tolerates me, she's polite, but she clearly prefers Charlene. She regards me as a servant. I feed her, I brush her, I clean the kitty-litter box, I shower her with endearments-I've even started taking her to the vet to try to bond with her. Charlene says that I love Dinah more than anything human, but that is false." Posner has resigned himself to loving Dinah in the self-abasing tradition of courtly love, the object forever unattainable.

Posner loves cute animals of all kinds, except dogs. He dislikes dogs partly out of a sense of duty-he feels that, given his commitment to cats, it would not be quite proper for him to like dogs as well. But it is also the canine personality that he finds distasteful. Years ago, when he and Charlene lived in Washington, they owned a Norwegian elkhound of servile disposition, poignantly misnamed Fang; whenever anyone evinced the slightest displeasure with him, Fang's lips would tremble with anxiety, and Posner found this irritating. Posner is an ardent fan of monkeys, his instinctive attraction perhaps bolstered by his socio-biological sense that monkeys are basically humans with fewer affectations. A couple of years ago, he watched a nature program about baboons, and found them so delightful that he decided to call the zoo and adopt one.
An ardent fan of monkeys! An ardent fan of monkeys! What possible difference could that make! Sheer clutter!

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