Michael Lewis and the Narrative Nonfiction Formula




FROM AGES SEVEN TO 14, Michael Lewis engaged in what he calls a “constant,” “excellent” war with his mother. “My mother is the most sweetly strong-willed person I’ve ever met, and we butted heads for seven years,” Lewis tells me, from his home in Berkeley, California. “When I was 14-years-old, right before the end of the war, in a moment of cool rationality in our family kitchen, my mother turned to me and said, ‘I just want you to know, for the last seven years you’ve made my life sheer hell.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, I won.’” He laughs. “I needed someone to push up against, to shape myself. I needed an immovable object for seven years, and she provided it.”

Seven years is also about how long it took Lewis to write The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, his latest book about the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky. Those years devoted to conceiving, researching, outlining, interviewing, and writing the book weren’t quite as confrontational as those between Lewis and his beleaguered mother, but they were still their own form of battle. Lewis, who incidentally lives just down the hill in Berkeley from Kahneman, said that after talking with him on and off for a year and a half, he became quietly confident that there was a great story to be had. Initially, however, Kahneman didn’t want to participate in the book.

Kahneman and Tversky are well known in the field of behavioral economics, and although their names might not ring a bell for everyone else, their foundational ideas probably do. Theories like “hindsight bias” — where outcomes appear obvious after they’ve already happened — and the “peak-end rule” — which says that how you remember an experience is predominately determined by how you felt at its most intense (its peak) and at its end — are now considered, if not common sense, then at least widely understood phenomena. Lewis, whose earlier book Moneyball looked at how statistical analysis might be used to override the often incorrect gut instincts of so-called experts, uses the two psychologists as a lens through which to explore how the human mind often jumps to incorrect conclusions — and how, by better understanding our implicit biases, we might become better decision-makers.

“He had several fears about doing the book,” Lewis says, in reference to Kahneman. “The biggest fear, oddly, was that because he was the living person, and Amos was dead, my book would naturally give him too much credit; he was worried that it would seem self-aggrandizing for him to cooperate with me. But he also thought, there’s no way you’re going to completely get this right, and I don’t see the upside in having the story told.”

Through a what-do-you-have-to-lose sales pitch, Lewis eventually won him over. “Some writer is going to come along and do something with the story sooner or later,” Lewis recalls telling him, “and maybe after you’re dead. So why not me?” Still, it was a precarious arrangement: Kahneman could’ve pulled the plug at any second. “I feared over the years that he was going to change his mind,” Lewis tells me, “but he was really principled about it. Even when he dreaded it, he’d say, ‘I know I said I was going to do it, so we’ll do it.’”

It was only after another two years of speaking with Kahneman along with Tversky’s widow and son (whom, by chance, Lewis had taught at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1998) that Lewis realized what The Undoing Project would actually be about. “It became pretty clear that the book I was writing was a love story,” he says. “It was a love story in that they had sex with each other’s ideas, and those ideas were their children. I was going to follow the children. And, also, of course, what this story was about was these two men’s real feelings for each other, and that came out, too, eventually.”

He spent time with the now 82-year-old Kahneman in Berkeley, where they’d race-walk up the hills together, Lewis frantically trying to transcribe notes as they walked. They also took a trip to Israel where they visited the military institution, where, to this day, officers are selected through psychological assessments like those pioneered by Kahneman more than 50 years ago.

It is difficult to overstate how revolutionary Kahneman and Tversky’s ideas really were. Kahneman, who grew up fleeing the Nazis in occupied France, where he saw his father die because he couldn’t get to a hospital to treat his diabetes, was, as Lewis portrays him, destined to be an intellectual. By the tender age of 21, he was already in charge of helping decide who should be given top positions in the Israeli military. Tversky, the son of a politician mother and a veterinarian father who had both fled an anti-Semitic Russia for Israel, fought in the Israeli military, where he was highly regarded, quickly rising to the rank of captain.

Their collaboration won them a Nobel Prize (a prize for Kahneman, anyway, since Tversky had passed away by then) for their “prospect theory,” which says that people tend to make decisions based on the values of potential gains or losses rather than on probable final outcomes. Within and against the backdrop of their war-torn upbringings, new Israeli identities, and love for one another, they forged literally dozens of psychological and behavioral theories now entrenched in the discipline, including not only the aforementioned “hindsight bias,” “peak-end rule,” and “prospect theory,” but also “availability heuristics” (mental shortcuts people use to quickly make decisions and understand topics, concepts, and people) and “loss aversion” (people tend to prefer avoiding losses rather than making equivalent gains). They also dove into fields like “hedonic psychology,” studying which experiences make life satisfying or not. In 1996, at 59, Tversky died of melanoma. Kahneman, three years older than Tversky, is currently an emeritus professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton, although he’s mostly in Berkeley. 

Given the importance and dynamism of this duo, Lewis has been surprised at some of the early criticisms of the book, especially by those who’ve called the book “less cinematic” than his previous works, like Jennifer Senior at The New York Times. “I actually think this is more cinematic,” says Lewis. “There are places in all my other books where it’s hard to imagine my mother wanting to read it. But it’s not fair to the reader not to explain what a collateralized debt obligation is, or, like, what the hell is the Allais Paradox that Danny and Amos are trying to solve. Every seven years, these guys were going out and shooting at people. There were wars, and there’s the Holocaust stuff. There’s plenty that feels cinematic. It’s a real story.”

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Born in New Orleans in 1960, Lewis retains a slight Southern accent (a charm that surely helps get subjects to open up) and majored in history of art at Princeton before going to work for the famous art dealer Daniel Wildenstein. Shortly thereafter, he shifted gears and entered the London School of Economics, subsequently moving to New York to work at Salomon Brothers, an investment bank that has since been acquired by Morgan Stanley.

At 27, with a $40,000 book deal, he quit his job to finish Liar’s Poker, in which he described his experiences as a bond trader in the late 1980s. His father, a corporate lawyer, was initially leery of his son’s decision to leave a high-paying New York finance career for one as mercurial as being a writer, but after the critical and commercial success of his debut book his father could hardly protest. Since then, Lewis has written 14 books, including Moneyball, The New New Thing, The Blind Side, The Big Short, and Flash Boys. Malcolm Gladwell calls him “a genius.” Tom Wolfe refers to him as “probably the best current writer in America.”

Lewis has found himself with an improbable professional life in which he straddles two usually mutually exclusive domains. He at once inhabits the dilettante’s world of pursuing a variety of subjects, ideas, people, and histories, and the academic’s world of long swaths of time spent honing specific expertise and pursue interesting ideas with unparalleled depth.

To have this kind of time (e.g., spending seven years on a book) means he has to be incredibly well paid — and he is. His books are now automatic best sellers and the film deals (four of them thus far) alone comprise a small fortune. As a sometimes magazine journalist, he pulls in a bit of spare change as well. New York magazine reported that his contributing writer deal with Vanity Fair guaranteed him $10 per word. With his stories often exceeding 10,000 words, a single article would net him a six-figure payday. It’s instructive to look at why, exactly, Lewis is able to command that kind of currency at all — both for his magazine pieces and for his books. What makes Lewis such a desirable writer?

For starters, he has few serious rivals. Malcolm Gladwell comes to mind, and so does, before his plagiarism scandal, Jonah Lehrer. But it is his mastery of this lucrative narrative nonfiction formula — especially the highly popular “scientific” narrative nonfiction strand — that makes him such a consistently high-earner.

The scientific narrative nonfiction formula, as Lewis and Gladwell use it, consists of depicting a character or small cadre of characters who embody a counterintuitive claim — especially counterintuitive for a behavioral or psychological subject (so that readers feel as though it might have application to their own lives). The scientific narrative nonfiction author then moves the reader from his or her original perception of the status quo to the counterintuitive truism through a winding road of anecdotes and eccentricities provided by the character or characters, all the while shearing and honing these stories for salience and readability. “You think that ‘experts’ have a solid grasp on something? Actually, here are some relatively unknown people who can prove otherwise.” This is the crux of the formula.

Importantly, the reader must be somewhat educated (and thus interested in the subject at hand), but not too knowledgeable in the specific field being discussed. Someone who knows Kahneman and Tversky’s history well may find little new in The Undoing Project. The most important skill for the likes of Lewis and Gladwell comes mostly at the outset: identifying the character or characters who can provide the kind of stories and perspectives to take the reader from what he thinks he knows to what he should know. There is a reason Lewis spent two years chatting with Kahneman before deciding his story could make a strong book. If Kahneman were not interesting as an interviewee, it wouldn’t matter how interesting his ideas might be; without compelling characters, narrative nonfiction easily tips into territory that’s either too ideological and academic or just plain boring.

Narrative nonfiction fails when the formula becomes inverted: when scientific claims come before characters. In Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game, for instance, she starts with a counterintuitive idea and then follows the numerous people who have had a role in reshaping that idea. It leads to a fragmented, muddled reading experience because the reader feels as though he’s rummaging through a dump truck full of facts rather than enjoying a story. Lewis, on the other hand, begins with the character or a small group of characters who embody, in some fundamental way, a counterintuitive idea, and then lets them tell the story. Gladwell does the same, although he goes one step further by splitting his books into chapters featuring different characters (arguably, more appealing to the reader, who might get easily bored). In either case, “narrative” is the dominant term in “narrative nonfiction,” or at least in commercially successful narrative nonfiction.

For those who enjoy scientific narrative nonfiction and its combination of easy pleasure and intellectual edification, The Undoing Project will be another dip into the cookie jar. The pity about The Undoing Project — and the genre in general — is that, unlike the greatest works of fiction or academia, it sits in a bizarre middle ground, neither providing new perspectives nor new information. It documents what is already known. Of course, clever packaging is no easy feat, and there’s a reason why authors are rewarded for finding compelling ways to recount stories. But, that said, it’s not the same as making or finding new or different stories.

Lewis is well aware of his keenest gift. “I certainly don’t have any fear of being myself on the page,” he says. “The thing that I have is this peculiar voice, and I had it from a very early age, even when I wrote letters home. My voice is the thing that gets me through the day, as a writer.” His is a well-earned confidence, and out of this mix of charm, charisma, and confidence (honed, no doubt, by his early arguments with his mother) comes his distinctive voice.

One of the ways Lewis’s voice works best on the page is in his subtle but constant psychoanalysis of his characters. Where a newspaper journalist might write, “Amos also said he was physically brave,” Lewis writes, “Amos was also physically brave, or at least intent on seeming so.” He is also expert at simplifying journalistic complexities, as when he weighs the opinions of Kahneman’s friends, family, himself, and Lewis’s own perception of the situation into a seamless pair of sentences. “A man who no one would ever have described as happy was setting out, to the wonder of those who knew him, to discover the rules of happiness,” he writes of Kahneman’s foray into hedonic psychology. “Or maybe he was merely sowing doubt in the minds of people who thought they knew what it meant to be happy.”

Lewis’s voice is the reason we’re willing to read about dense matters in a commercial text. When The Big Short was improbably made into a film, the asides on particularly esoteric financial matters were handled by celebrities doing funny or titillating things while explaining them, like the Australian model and actress Margot Robbie explaining collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) while drinking champagne in a bubble bath. In a way, Lewis’s voice on the page is as compelling as Robbie in a tub on the screen: he grabs your attention with psychological insight and in-depth exposition but feeds it to you in such a smooth, simple manner that it reads like fiction.

Lewis’s interview process is also exceptional in the truest sense of the word — he’s willing to let a lot of pretty good pitches go by before he takes a swing at a great one. “I’m indirect. I don’t go in head-on. I seek to get to know my subject, and then worry about how to get exactly what I want out of them afterward,” he says. “I mean it really is about hanging around a lot. It’s labor intensive and inefficient. I never have an angle going in.” The formula, therefore, stays true: character leads to story leads to idea.

In some ways, it’s a shame that The Undoing Project didn’t come out just a little bit later, so that Lewis might have had time to reflect on the presidential election in light of Kahneman and Tversky’s behavioral insights. Lewis figures they would have had much to say. “They would point to people’s lust for certainty as part of the appeal of Trump — that people want the world to be a more certain place than it actually is and so they’re completely open to con men, who say they know everything in an unknowable situation,” he says. “They’d even go so far, I bet, as to say that representativeness plays a role in the selection of the president. We have this mental image of what a president looks like and how he seems, and part of that model is that he’s mainly a tall, white guy. People look and say, ‘Well, a woman doesn’t look like a president.’ They don’t say that consciously, but there’s this matching thing that goes on. Danny actually had a lot to say about this race. They both would’ve had a lot to say.”

Although Lewis admits the chances are “pretty slim,” it’s also entirely possible that he’ll be penning an Obama book in the near future. “It’s up to Obama,” he says. “We’ve met over a period of months, but this was four years ago for a magazine piece. Since then, I’ve only seen him twice — once for dinner at his place, and once on a visit when I just happened to be in the White House. It wouldn’t be a long book. I’d see him once a week for six months — go do things, have some meaningful encounters. If he were willing, I’d be doing it tomorrow.”

Lewis is surely the most valuable voice in modern narrative nonfiction, and his ability to turn otherwise dull financial and statistical matters into compelling reading not only makes for consistently enthralling books but is a form of public service as well. It is, perhaps, unfair to compare him or his narrative nonfiction kin too closely with writers of fiction or academia; at heart, Lewis is basically a journalist. As he learned from his “excellent war” with his mother, he’s skilled at arguing with the conventional, at pushing up against what is known so as to shape his texts. He patiently waits until his subject makes himself known, rather than diving in and surgically plucking information from him (as any journalist with a more hurried timeline would have to do).

Because of the depth of information he achieves in The Undoing Project — of Kahneman and Tversky’s concepts, of their history, of their relationship — it is easy to mistake Lewis for an aspiring academic. Because of his unique voice and narrative style in The Undoing Project — which helps us breeze through the book while still retaining and desiring more — it is easy to mistake him for also trying to be a novelist.

But the truth is, Michael Lewis is neither of those things. In reality, he’s a guy who’s really, really good at taking notes on people and synthesizing these into compelling narratives. It’s a hell of a skill, and it’s far easier said than done. But after finishing The Undoing Project, I had the distinct feeling — as I’ve had with so many of Lewis’s and Gladwell’s books — that, while a substantive, moving love story had happily propelled me through, the boundaries of the narrative nonfiction formula had also made themselves glaringly known. There are moments when Lewis almost transcends the formula — where the relationship between Kahneman and Tversky becomes so compelling and so central that the “Hey, I bet you didn’t know this” aspect of the book falls away — and yet, Lewis is a best seller for a reason; eventually, the drama between the characters gives way to the characters’ central job: leading us to information. Dressed up with character and compelling narrative, the formula only works when it is anchored by raw information; all the rest is for show. And thus, happy to have spent time with Lewis’s voice and technical skill, when I closed the book I was left without any fundamentally new insights; rather, I’d only a head filled with fun anecdotes and facts.

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Cody Delistraty is a writer based in Paris.


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