When I was at Jossip, I wrote about an anecdote Malcolm Gladwell told at the Moth Gala last November, which was later rebroadcasted on This American Life. In the story, Gladwell boasts about getting absurd phrases like "raises new and troubling questions" and "perverse and often baffling" into the Washington Post. At the time, being self-serious and high-minded &mdash I do after all listen to This American Life &mdash I wondered whether there wasn't something "perverse and often baffling" about one of the most successful journalists of our time making lite deception sound so endearing . Some people agreed with me, or at least wondered how a Canuck like Gladwell ended up on This American Life. Gladwell is back, not to defend himself for the charges of being Canadian, but to explain the story on his own blog:
There is a disclaimer at the end of the This American Life broadcast, to the effect that the Moth is a place where "people come to tell both true stories and occasional tall tales." As I think should be obvious if you listen to it, my story definitely belongs to the "tall tale" category. I hope you enjoy it. But please do so with a rather large grain of salt.
Gladwell has been telling the story of getting "perverse and often baffling" into the Washington Post for years. And as he says at the end of the story, you can look it up: He really did get the phrase in the paper (we found it on Nexis!). The story is not a total fabrication. On some level, Gladwell wants it both ways: He wants to tell a funny story, which the perverse and often baffling story is, and wants to be a trustworthy journalist. Is that worth condemnation?
When I heard Gladwell at the Moth event and later on This American Life, I let myself forget that that Moth stories can be tall tales. I took everything Gladwell said without a grain of salt, because, to keep the food analogy going, it tasted better that way. Perhaps I overreacted when Gladwell referred to having a "Jayson Blair moment" so casually.
As the memoir craze shows, people like "true" stories. Before James Frey turned out to be a liar, the dental surgery scene in A Million Little Pieces was moving precisely because I thought that Frey had really had a root canal without Novocain. There's no reason that story should be less inspiring because it was embellished, but somehow it is. The same is true for Walden, the Henry David Thoreau memoir of his life in the woods. Whenever that book comes up, some wiseass always needs to mention that Thoreau's mom did his laundry while he was contemplating self-reliance. But should that make his work any less valuable?
Maybe it's unfair that knowing that Gladwell wasn't exactly betting his friend to get absurd phrases into the Washington Post makes his story less compelling, even while it makes it less offensive. But it's a perverse and often baffling part of human nature that we want stories, even unbelievable ones, to be true.