Call for a new literary category

Jack Shafer's debunking of a Malcolm Gladwell riff demonstrates only that Gladwell is a talented bullshit artist and Shafer is a scold, both of which we already knew. (An obvious point Shafer misses: when a guy tells a funny story about sneaking humorous fabrications into a newspaper, doesn't the story itself hint that the guy is not to be trusted?)

Gladwell has apparently told the "new and troubling questions" story at dinner parties for ten years. My guess is that it has gotten funnier, and less strictly veridical, over that time. Anyone who heard him tell it at a dinner party would identify it immediately as a hybrid of fact and fiction, just like any other successful dinner-party anecdote. And then it gets played on This American Life, and Shafer spends 3,000 words pointing out that it doesn't stand up to fact-checking.

Why don't we just have a category called "anecdote," to accommodate stories rooted in autobiography but containing exaggerations and emendations for comic or dramatic effect? The ones in magazines like the New Yorker would typically be humorous, but Reader's Digest could use the rubric for those moralistic little fables that illustrate how Jesus is always there when you're not expecting him. Let's stipulate that an anecdote must be relatively short (when it reaches book length, it's a novel), and that it's bad form to use anecdotal license for self-glamorization, just as it would be at a dinner party (Margaret Jones, throw your hands in the air). And then let's stick the word "anecdote" at the top of the page where it used to say "personal history," and Rodney Rothman can write for the New Yorker again, and David Sedaris won't get special treatment, and Shafer can stop stating the obvious.

This post's title notwithstanding, the anecdote -- the tale told around a fire, presented as true but not entirely verifiable -- has a much longer history than the clearly labelled fiction or the thoroughly researched news story. (Homer: [stands up, clears throat] "This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles....") It's no wonder that it keeps returning even when we don't make room for it.