Bollocks: a review of Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Blink’

I started writing this review a couple of weeks ago, at which point I was roughly halfway through chapter one. I didn’t publish because I thought I was perhaps being a bit too harsh. After dipping back into Blink however, I and now am certain that this is one of the weakest, shallowest, unrelentingly stupid non-fiction books I’ve ever read. So please, read this review and (just to be sure you appreciate how vigorously I hate reading this) mentally upscale all negative comments by a factor of 100.

For Blink to make a convincing argument, Malcolm Gladwell requires of the reader two things: a) they don’t use their brain, and b) they accept that the point he’s making is wrong.

Shop fronts of Snappy Snaps and JessopsI’m not the first person to take a poke at Gladwell’s personal brand of pop psychological bullpap (Adam and Joe did a particularly entertaining bit about it on their radio show a few years ago), but Blink is the first of his books I’ve delved into. Equipped with a tiresome palette of loaded anecdotes and sciency-sounding studies, Gladwell attempts to paint a world in which instinct offers greater insight than contemplation. He calls this ‘thin-slicing’.

And by ‘thin-slicing,’ Gladwell contends, deploying trendy-sounding jargon to better qualify his point, we can quickly and effortlessly identify fraudulent pieces of art, doomed marriages and the best candidates for a job. The appeal to the ignorant is obvious: why strain yourself with deep thought when it’s easier to just run with whatever random crap is floating around your brain at the time? Under the slightest weight of scrutiny, however, the premise collapses quicker than the cheerleading team of the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Society forming a pyramid.

Early in the book, Gladwell presents a scenario. Imagine, he says, that you’re asked to judge a person’s suitability for a job based on your impression of their personality. To do this, you have two options. Option one, you meet with the candidate three times a week over the course of a year, eventually becoming their best friend. Option two, you spend fifteen minutes nosing around their bedroom. Which one offers a better judge of character?

For Gladwell to elicit the slightest flutter of interest from the reader, he relies on them assuming option one to be the better of the two. For Gladwell to get the kind of fuck-me-my-mind-is-blown reaction he seems to be aiming for, the reader needs to be so wedded to the idea that option one is the way to go, they need several patronising pages of poorly conceived psychological study to show them the light.

The study, unsurprisingly, purports to show that option two is the better choice: strangers who spend a short time poking around someone’s bedroom are a better judge of certain aspects of that person’s character than the subject’s closest friends. Gladwell makes it clear that we’re supposed to find this both unbelievable and face-palmingly obvious:

“If you are like most people, I imagine that you find [the study’s] conclusions quite incredible. But the truth is they shouldn’t be…”

But there’s simply nothing incredible going on here. As Gladwell’s own description of the study explains (between over-excited embellishments), the personality traits ‘thin-slicers’ judged more accurately than friends were centred around how organised, stable, and independently minded they were (or were not). Meanwhile, the friends were significantly more accurate at judging how extraverted and agreeable the person is (or isn’t). In other words, looking at a bedroom (one of the most personal, intimate areas of someone’s life) affords you exactly the kind of non-insightful insight you’d expect from such a perspective, while offering no clue whatsoever as to a person’s wider behaviour. Likewise, friends accurately know how a person acts in public, but not so much about what they keep out of sight. This says nothing about the strength of ‘spontaneous decisions’ and more about the benefit of perspective.

But there’s a deeper flaw here. Gladwell presents two options and says himself that most people, using their gut reaction, choose the first – i.e., the ‘wrong’ choice. To get to the ‘right’ choice requires a level of critical thinking and/or a fairly extensive psychological study – which is about as non-spontaneous as you can get. If my blink response can’t steer me in the right direction with such an inane (and supposedly unsurprising) example, what use is it on matters of real importance?

Even if we try to ignore the wider argument of the book and focus on the component psychological ‘revelations’, we end up frustrated. I’m convinced that Gladwell actively goes out of his way in his efforts to avoid saying anything of real insight. At the close of chapter one, he talks about how humans are natural thin-slicers and, illustrating this alongside some excruciatingly inane anecdotes, points to an example in which non-experts took part in a divorce prediction test (that he found, apparently, “overwhelming”) after being given a list of emotions to look for when watching videos of couples. The observers predicted which couples would divorce with “better than 80 percent accuracy”. To Gladwell, this was just another anecdote to throw in to show how effective the blink effect is, alongside a birdwatcher accurately (according to the birdwatcher) identifying a bird from a fleeting glance two-hundred feet away and a Hollywood producer telling the story about why he cast Tom Hanks in the movie Splash. But what’s interesting to me is how these people knew to look for the emotions in that list, or the distinguishing features of bird species, or the characteristics of a leading man that resonate with movie-goers. Of course, the ‘trick’ is knowing what to look for – crack that and we can streamline the old mental process, cutting out the crappy thought-streams and focus on what matters. Surely that’s what’s at the heart of this?

Apparently not. Gladwell dismisses this at the beginning of chapter two, further tailoring the bullshit for the gleefully clueless by arguing that even if you can’t explain why you feel something, that doesn’t mean you’re wrong or full of shit. This is just how thin-slicing works! We shouldn’t even try to understand what’s jerking that knee.

“If we are to learn to improve the quality of the decisions we make, we need to accept the mysterious nature of our snap judgments.”

Appropriately, Gladwell rejects an in-depth analysis and instead prefers to recall the most whimsical, least helpful personal account of anything I’ve ever read: “[when attempting to determine whether a piece of art was a fraud or not, the fakebuster said it was as if] his eyes and senses were a flock of hummingbirds popping in and out of dozens of way stations.” What the fuck am I supposed to do with that information?

Depressingly, I’m only about a fifth of the way through the book (I thought I’d get into the swing of things by making a snap judgment). There’s a chance it’ll all begin to make sense, or maybe Gladwell will qualify his central point into extinction (“It only works with certain aspects of some topics on which you’ve already acquired extensive knowledge and experience”). He may even be saving his best material for later, biding his time before dropping some ‘facts’ that will truly rock my world (if it does get better, leave a comment letting me know – I’m as yet undecided whether or not to finish it).

I just can’t see that happening, however. It’s not premise that is infuriatingly shallow. Gladwell explores his subject with the subtlety and authority of that twatty kid from primary school who totally is an expert in some cool martial art – “did you know I could kill a man with one finger? Like this… well, yeah, but if I used my full strength your head would explode.”

Gladwell paints another scenario: he’s a professor; you walk down a long corridor to his office, sit down on a table and proceed to do a simple word test (helpfully included in the book). Once you’ve completed the test, he writes:

“That seemed straightforward, right? Actually it wasn’t. After you finished that test – believe it or not – you would have walked out of my office and back down the hall more slowly than you walked in.”

Maybe I’m missing a ‘wonderment gland’ or something, because I am not amazed at the idea of how Gladwell asserts I would’ve behaved had I really completed that test in his office.

The study referenced is quite interesting by itself – the word test was littered with terms that subconsciously trigger feelings of old age in your mind; if you’re a bit of a Derren Brown fan (as I am), you’d be familiar with the idea. But Gladwell ‘reveals’ the finding in such a breathlessly childish way, I found myself immediately sceptical, wondering whether the corridor had a slight-but-significant gradient leading away from the office. I know books like this are supposed to challenge one’s lazily-accepted beliefs, but this is surely the opposite effect to what was intended. He’s got me doubting things I had hitherto accepted!

This perfectly sums up how utterly worthless the book is: I was a believer in Blink before I started reading it.


‘Hunger Games’ star Jennifer Lawrence invites fans to look at her books

Ahem. Let’s just say I favour her odds.


She’s not impressed.

I’d managed to avoid much of the buzz about The Hunger Games until recently. A couple of friends demanded I read it, which I did. I thought it was a great story and should make a damn good movie. Really looking forward to it.

Via BuzzFeed – Jennifer Lawrence “Hunger Games” Book Signing.

Fifty fantasy fiction clichés in fewer than fifteen-hundred words

I’ve just finished reading the amazing A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, which got me thinking about the wondrous toolbox of fantasy fiction clichés authors have at their fingertips.

I have no doubt the world would be a far poorer place without the noble lion-hearted hero travelling many ‘leagues’ across culturally-appropriate terrain to avenge his father’s murder at the hands of the dragon-crested baddie. If we couldn’t sum up an entire race or culture with one particular personality trait, where would we be? Adrift in an ocean of nuance and complexity, that’s where. Fuck that. I like my fantasy books like my fantasy heroines: with as little dressing as possible and easy to get into.

In honour of those literary shortcuts, I’ve cobbled together this short passage containing (at least) fifty of my favourite clichés. Your challenge is to identify as many as you can. Click continue reading or scroll down to the bottom of the page for the answers.

Note: some appear more than once. If you spot one I’ve missed leave a comment.

Ready? Then let’s begin…


Blood Harvest

The crowd bowed reverentially as their lord proudly made his way to the executioner’s dais. Alix only stared longingly at the father he hadn’t seen for nigh on fourteen seasons. Where the town-peasants and plains-folk saw the victorious hero of Ayr’s Gash, towering above them in glory with thick auburn beard and skin as white as marble, Alix saw only a stranger’s face, tired and haggard. His father had developed a slight stoop, Alix mused, and held his shield arm with a stiffness he had not possessed when he first left for battle those many moons ago. Even a Farsford ranger with Faelfleyn eyes would have struggled to notice such flaws, but Alix had cherished in his mind a crystal-keen image of his father. War had changed him.

As the lord of the Nordermark lofted the ragged banner of House Fallen high into the air, the muted tricolore of the bear, wolf and lion waved defiantly in the chill breeze and ebullient cries of emotion from the crowd threatened to drown even Alix’s dark feelings. It was not just longing for his father that inspired such melancholy. Today was the eve of the Blood Harvest, when the spirits of ancestors past return to this world to leech wasted life off the living. In a waking dream many nights ago, Alix had seen the celebrations, kick-dances and rowdy group-songs of the festival. He saw his father’s triumphant homecoming and the faith he inspired. And he saw darkness spreading from the north, turning faith into despair and tears of joy into fountains of blood. His dread vision revealed a future of death, hate, betrayal…

And the return of The King.

Attempting to dispel the shadow of his thoughts, Alix returned his attention to the stage where his father was now making a speech. It was tradition on Blood Harvest’s Eve to welcome the honoured dead by spilling blood in their name. By the lord’s own hand, the foulest of criminals were put to death in public execution.

To a chorus of cries, wails and hisses, Alix’s father announced the name of Zuh Luh-turgal, the butcher of Gladestown. A raucous clamor erupted from the audience as the condemned was escorted to the stage by the imposing figure of Nordermark’s most trusted servant: Cr Treacher, knight of the old order, wolf-kin, augur of Misdon-Keep. Garbed in azure drilkiln-pelt and carrying a dull-grey warhammer, the venerable soldier and Alix’s mentor-at-arms deposited the prisoner at the foot of his master with obvious disgust. Alix was tall for his young age, but still had to stand on his toes to see the wretched beast groveling on the executioner’s stage.

His dark face was adorned with crude tattoos and ugly piercings. Revealing yellow teeth, he growled like a caged animal; though a hard kick from Treacher soon saw him tamed. At length, the king read out the butcher’s list of crimes. The murder of three children in Staine’s End, the razing of Grunswyrd, the rape of thirteen Pantheon brides… and so the list continued. On occasion, those violated by his foul deeds would step forward, spitting and cursing.

At one point, a woman of the Dhans-kin clambered onto the stage, tore off her tunic and raked long nails down her bare flesh, from breast to belly and below. Alix understood. This woman had been raped by the butcher. Her performance was an act of defiance, as dictated by the custom of her people. Treacher gathered up her clothes and, not unkindly, moved her off of the stage.

His crimes now aired for the gods to judge, Zuh Luh-turgal’s neck was eased onto the block while his father unsheathed The Sword. Standing almost as high as a knight, the black blade, which Alix knew would one day be his to bear, shimmered under the weak glow of the Palling Sun. On cue, the Grand Pantheon’s earthly representative rose to perform his part of the occasion. Moving surprisingly gracefully for such a grotesquely fat man, the pox-faced High Priest mounted the stage and started his ceremonial declaration. From behind, Alix could hear the Master of Books translate the oration, performed in the high speech, lingua deus, into the common tongue. Alix did not need such a translation. He had quickly mastered languages as he did all other subjects.

Bored by the pomp of the old religion, Alix took the time to look for familiar faces in the audience. Although he could not see him, Alix knew his arch-rival, Cethil Cur-Medgar, heir to the House Be’traille, would be watching him. They had hated each other from birth, but whereas Alix attempted to maintain his distance with characteristic Fallen stoicism, the other boy, with his gaunt, deathly-white face, small, pink-rimmed eyes and bitter tongue, would bait and snipe with a coward’s spite. Whenever Alix rose in challenge to the petty insults, Cethil would run, scared and spitting lies to his mother. Alix could see her, standing in the crowd, radiating distaste like a sour moon. Swlthin Nur-Medgar, the Baroness of House Be’traille, clung to her minkin fur as if to protect her noble self from the swarming peasants. Tradition of Alix’s House said all castes stand equal at such occasions. For such proud customs the Baroness and her kin considered Alix’s bloodline primitive.

For what it was worth, Alix found Swlthin’s own ways more vile. She was the mistress of manipulation and whoredom, whose only passions were power and politics. Wife of the lecherous Baron-Knight Medgar, her spread legs had sired him two children and won her the right to title and land. Cethil, the eldest, was all the spawn of his bitch mother, while the infant Celi, standing next to the Baroness, was as bright and generous as any child Alix had met. Ignorant of the spectacle on the stage, her sparkling eyes were fixated on a troupe of Fallen knights standing nearby. A flicker of a smile crossed Alix’s countenance. The noble girl who dreamt, in vain, to be a warrior. At that moment, the Baroness noticed her daughter’s straying attention as she harshly yanked the child to her side and hissed cruel words under her breath. Alix felt a pang of pity for the innocent youngling. She was born into the wrong family in the wrong age. Shaking off these thoughts, Alix heard the priest reach the climax of his speech and so returned his attention to the stage.

With a polite nod from the priest, Alix’s father wrapped his strong, steely fingers around the well-worn hilt of his mighty blade. Alix remembered being held warmly by those hands once when they were soft as leather. Now, after years of fighting the warring tribes beyond The Pit, they were as coarse as the tongue of a grizzled Sabre-Cat.

Bloodshed mere moments away, the crowd roared. Alix almost didn’t notice Salia Laella stepping smartly from the throng, standing so close he could smell the sweet scent of rose-water on her skin. Alix forced himself not to turn his eyes from the stage, but from the edge of his vision he could see the soft outline of her proud features, the gentle curve of her chin and the slight swell of her breasts poking out beneath her traditional virginal tunic. She was his Solistani, his chosen one, and one day, Alix knew, she would bear his seed. A delicate hand lightly clasped his own.

“I can read your worries, cousin,” she whispered. “Quell your fears. Victory belongs to House Fallen. The Outerlands acquiesce to your family’s might.”

Alix did not reply, but the slight tensing of his fingers around hers was enough to betray his resolve. Though his eyes may have been set on his father’s gruesome duty, Alix’s mind looked far past to the land beyond Argyll’s Shame where, in his waking-dream, he saw the unliving hordes of The Shadow gathering ‘neath the black banner of The Unforgiving Eye.

With a face as cold and grim as the land he ruled, Alix’s father swung the blood-iron blade smooth and strong. The scarred head of the black butcher bounced across the Barrow-wood planks. The crowd cheered for their master, the bringer of justice and peace. For a fleeting second, as he scanned the masses with a hunter’s care, the lord locked eyes with his son. It was only a passing glance, but Alix understood. There was a price to pay for justice and peace, his father’s look told him. And that price was weighed in blood.


[Click continue reading for the answers]

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King’s epic The Dark Tower to become Hollywood fodder [filed under: oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, please don’t fuck it up]

Dark Tower cover, J. Scott Campbell - Eldelgado

Stephen King’s The Dark Tower blew my fucking mind.

Unless my worryingly patchy memory is misfiring, I think I first read The Gunslinger (prime instalment of the seven-book epic tale) during a summer of effective unemployability. A time in which I drifted between will-sapping part-time agency jobs and waited for an eccentric millionaire to stumble across me in the street, recognise my awesomeness and sponsor my desired life of creative decadence. This never happened. What did happen was a short and brutally tedious stint performing menial data entry work for Bookpoint – a national book distribution service and a jobs behemoth in the Didcot area, swallowing many thousands of young lives over the decades (some unfortunate ones never did escape). This was possibly the worst job I’ve ever had. But as with all painful experiences, I sought some slight slither of light to sustain me through the darkness. My options for enjoyment were few, however; just about the only resource I had at hand was an extremely long list of books.

Rather fortuitously, it was this never-ending inventory of novels (and their damned ISBN numbers) where I found my salvation. Disassociated titles tickled my mushy brain pipes and gradually sparkled my imagination. None more so than The Dark Tower; in particular, The Gunslinger. I suppose most readers pick books based on word of mouth, favoured authors or heavy marketing. With shying away from all things King in the past, no prior inkling of the series, and, even now, never meeting a single other human being who has read any of the books, this is a rare example of purchase by mental attrition. Unable to resist, I went and bought The Gunslinger from WH Smiths. And then I bloody well read it.

I’ve said this was during the summer. I can’t say with certainty that’s true. I do distinctly remember a warm, ochrey backdrop to my life during that short period, but this may have just been me channeling The Gunslinger’s world into my own. It had that much of an effect on me.

King’s first steps into forging his own Lord of the Rings (mine would have more elven porn) began when he was 21, although the version I read had been rewritten by a writer, far older and presumably far wiser. The book was perfect. Even the introduction, On Being Nineteen (And A Few Other Things), had me completely enthralled (and, incidentally, compelled me to bother reading the introduction notes of every novel I’ve since come across – just in case). The tale of the world’s last gunslinger, Roland of Gilead, was, and I believe still is, unlike anything else I’ve ever read. The Gunslinger is raw, wild, free… In the aforementioned introduction, King writes about a popular novelist writing for the audience. Possibly that’s true of the later (arguably more polished) books in the series, but number one strikes me more as a passionate eruption of talent, magnificently unfettered and unrefined. The mystery, the knowing references, the uncompromising progression… It’s the kind of don’t-give-a-fuck story any aspiring writer would want to pin down onto paper. If I may again refer to the introduction, King repeatedly references a “mean-ass Patrol Boy”. This guy wants to knock you into line and take a baseball bat to the shell of spirited enthusiasm you wear in your youth until it becomes a broken husk of its former self, in a process commonly known as growing up. I wonder if he looks back at The Gunslinger, compares it to the still excellent but somewhat more domesticated later novels, and has as much fondness as I do for the work of King, the Pre-Patrol Guy version.

I write all this after reading an article on The Guardian’s film blog, revealing plans for a The Dark Tower movie, directed by Ron Howard. This could be an absolute disaster. Ron Howard’s directed some great films and can beckon some excellent actors (though he had better not cast Russell fucking Crowe as Roland), but I worry he met his Patrol Guy a long time ago. There’s talk of producing “compelling television” with some “cool twists and turns”. For sure, Stephen King as a pop novelist is definitely geared towards those type of movies and The Dark Tower has plenty of moments which would be cinematically awesome. But I honestly can’t see how a film could capture what makes people love The Dark Tower so much and still appeal to a wider audience. Honestly, the ending alone, while, I believe, is perfect considering the nature of the story, would satisfy just about nobody. If you know the ending isn’t going to work, why even bother starting from the beginning?

And that question leads neatly on to my biggest concern. A multiverse-jumping epic spanning seven books squeezed into three movies? A hell of a lot is going to need to go (and let’s hope they don’t shove in any wargs). I have a feeling The Gunslinger, as I know and love it, will be mercilessly culled. I’ve read a review on Amazon suggesting newcomers to The Dark Tower series actively skip this book. It’s true that much of what takes place in The Gunslinger has little bearing on future events. And I can envision how the bits that are vital to the story could be incorporated in different ways. Although I understand all of this, to cut it out would still be a tragedy. Roland’s evocative first outing frames the epic in its entirety – even as the heroes dip in and out of different worlds, timeframes and realities, that warm, ochrey glow still flickers in the background, reminding us about who Roland really is when the shit’s about to hit the fan and there’s no-one to turn to ‘cept his twin revolvers and wits. The Gunslinger is the beam that holds the other books together. Get rid of it and the story becomes nothing more than a quartet of weirdos fighting robots and walking long distances (note: this is massively understating the sheer awesomeness of what actually happens in books 2 through 7 and I feel guilty for playing them down… but I hope any Dark Tower fans reading this understand what I’m getting at!).

Like the pic at the top? I’ve got a sprinkling of more Dark Tower fan art on my Tumblr blog.