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Malcolm Gladwell on “good artists borrow, great artists steal”

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2004

Malcolm Gladwell on “good artists borrow, great artists steal”. A playwright steals material from an article of his and he tries to figure out why he’s not that upset about it. Fantastic article.

Reader comments

mr nice guyNov 15, 2004 at 3:35PM

maybe, just maybe, gladwell’s not upset because he, like, steals all his material from serious academics and stiffs them on credit.

i think his stuff is interesting, but look, the dude owes his career to taking other people’s work and trumpeting it as his own discovery.

Paul HNov 15, 2004 at 4:20PM

Having just read The Tipping Point, I think the ‘trumpeting’ claim above is a bit overwrought. There are ample details of where different concepts in the book come from.

In my opinion, Gladwell’s talent is to pull those strings of theory together in an engrossing way. Once he’s woven his tapestry of ideas, he does a final presentation at the end, and that’s what constitutes his artistry. In and of itself it’s not ‘new’, but it’s what you do with the building blocks you’re given that counts.

jkottkeNov 15, 2004 at 4:47PM

mr nice guy, do you think Gladwell takes too much credit or is given too much credit? It’s true that he’s hailed as some sort of genius for inventing the concept of the tipping point, but I don’t think that he should be blamed for his readers’ lack of context about his role in the process.

essNov 16, 2004 at 12:17PM

Paul H is correct - the part where Gladwell clearly identifies his sources means he is not trying to take credit for their work. Did think that Gladwell was a bit disingenuous by colluding reporting and works of fiction. Then I thought, no, he’s right because legally reporting and plays and novels are covered by the same laws. Then I got confused again. Still can’t decide if I think it’s okay that Gladwell ignore the differences in this essay – he does note that academics publish in a set of expectations.

I don’t think anyone owns a guitar lick or a plot device… but cannot come up with solid rules for proving the difference between a cheap hack and something like Grendel - which is clearly not a rip-off of Beowulf.

mr nice guyNov 16, 2004 at 3:24PM

i think my main bone of contention with gladwell, who i think is very very clever, is that at least in tipping point he does sort of cherry pick the research of very serious academics and glazes over, dumbs down really, the complex social theory behind it.

the tipping point, for example, is basically “small worlds” lite — small worlds was written by duncan watts (who was interviewed for tipping point and not credited) and is tipping point but, well, harder to read (and devoid of gladwell’s silly jargon). i think where gladwell excels is making complicated ideas easy to understand. the problem is that it sounds nice at cocktail parties but gladwell’s social networking stuff really is just the stuff of parlor tricks. i don’t want to start a flame war, but i just think he’s overrated.

mr nice guyNov 16, 2004 at 3:32PM

anyway, basically i agree with paul h. i think i was drunk when i posted belligerently yesterday

jkottkeNov 16, 2004 at 7:02PM

small worlds was written by duncan watts (who was interviewed for tipping point and not credited)

And to lend a bit of credence to your point, I heard that Duncan was a wee bit pissed that he wasn’t mentioned in the book although much of what he told Gladwell was in there.

malcolm gladwellNov 18, 2004 at 11:47AM

With all due respect, I believe I am quite scrupulous in my crediting of academics. In eight years of writing for the New Yorker, I have never had an academic complain that I used his or her ideas without due credit. I would venture to say, in fact, that no one at the New Yorker has ever referenced more academic papers in his writing than i have. As for Watts, I cited a paper by Duncan Watts in my first piece on social networking—“Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg,” in the New Yorker. I didn’t cite Small Worlds in Tipping Point because Tipping Point was at the publisher’s, about to printed, when that book came out. In any case, my ideas about social networking come from Granovetter and Milgram (both of whom I repeatedly and generously cite) and the real reason I don’t go into much detail on Watts is that Watts’ notions differ from my own. I’m much more attached to the Milgram idea of the asymetricality of social connections: that’s one of the central themes of Tipping Point. Watts work (as far as I understand it) stresses the symetricality of social connections. I’m not sure I’m obliged to cite someone who disagrees with me, am i?

malcolm gladwellNov 18, 2004 at 11:56AM

btw, didn’t mean to sound pissy, in the previous post, since this blog has been so wonderfully nice to me over the years. (thanks!) i guess i’m a little sensitive on this because i genuinely agonize over the attribution question. i can’t, as a writer for a magazine that doesn’t have footnotes, document every source the way that i would sometimes like to, and so every article requires a judgment call of one sort or another and sometimes those judgements calls are hard. one solution, i suppose, might be to publish footnotes separately on my website—which might be a good way around the problem. . oh well. in any case, sorry for the outburst.

mr nice guyNov 18, 2004 at 5:09PM

ach. the awful and wonderful repercussions of the interweb — stuff you write actually gets read. outburst (which is not how i would characterize it) was warranted — it was good of you to respond thoughtfully in the way you did to such a mean and petty comment.

interesting too to hear more of the inside Small Worlds story.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.

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