Flipping through the pages of this month's O Magazine, I was shocked to read Gabrielle LeBlanc's "Worth a Read" column. Could it be that Malcolm Gladwell's new book Outliers, which examines extraordinary achievers, does not include a single woman? Bill Gates, Mozart, Robert Oppenheimer, and the Beatles are among Gladwell's subjects. But what about Virginia Woolf, Susan Sontag, Tina Brown, or Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo?
What about Oprah?
The omission of women in Outliers says more about the nature of "big think" books than it does about Mr.Gladwell. 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. Now some of these books (the ones written by behavioral economists) tend toward the gee-whiz-isn't-that-interesting set like Predictably Irrational, Freakonomics, and The Undercover Economist. But the point is, all 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.
It is hard to know whether women are better at telling stories than propagating ideas (I'm thinking of Susan Orlean, Mary Roach, Karen Abbott), or whether the intellectual audacity required to sell our hypotheses about the world simply isn't in our genetic makeup. But until we get in the ring and start claiming our own big ideas in book form, I suppose we shouldn't be surprised if current discourse leaves us on the sidelines. Still, Malcolm Gladwell is one of the most influential public intellectuals of our time and it's a shame he didn't use his platform to celebrate a few women outliers.
Julia Cheiffetz is a Senior Editor at HarperStudio, a new imprint at HarperCollins. You can find her at www.26thstory.com where this piece was posted simultaneously.