Are Men Hogging the “Big Idea Book” Territory?

By Neal Comment

HarperStudio editor Julia Cheiffetz raises an interesting point about the sorts of men Malcolm Gladwell finds remarkable, or at least remarkable enough to write about in his latest book, Outliers—that point being that they’re all, well, men. “Bill Gates, Mozart, Robert Oppenheimer, and the Beatles are among Gladwell’s subjects,” Cheiffetz writes after reading a review of the book in O Magazine. “But what about Virginia Woolf, Susan Sontag, Tina Brown, or Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo? What about Oprah?” But this isn’t a case of being mad at just one author:

“Since the publication of The Tipping Point we’ve seen a proliferation of books that present a single, shrink-wrapped idea as a means of understanding the world at large: books like The World is Flat, The Black Swan, The Wisdom of Crowds, The Long Tail… [A]ll of them promise access to a club whose sole activity is the exchange of ideas; all of them promise, however covertly, to make us feel smarter. And all of them are written by men.”

We’re not entirely convinced—right off the top of our head, we thought of Susan Faludi and Naomi Klein in the “explain-it-all” category—but we did find Cheiffetz’s distinction between “storytellers” and “big thinkers,” and the suggestion that these two types of writing might play out along gender lines at least as far as what sells, intriguing. Things aren’t really that binary—the reason Gladwell enjoys such a powerful reputation as a big thinker, for example, is that he’s an expert storyteller, and while Mary Roach gets credit for her quirky stories, her books are just as issue-driven as his—but it’s when you start trying to think about why such a stark polarization feels wrong (or right!) that you start getting a nuanced consideration of an issue like this.

With that in mind, we welcome your thoughts… and especially your reading recommendations.