Michael Lewis and the art of writing a culturally awkward bestseller

Posted by Abraham Riesman

Let’s have a little thought experiment. Take the following paragraph and replace “Icelanders” with, let’s say, “Koreans,” and “Scandinavian” with “East Asian”:

Maybe because there are so few Icelanders in the world, we know next to nothing about them. We assume they are more or less Scandinavian—a gentle people who just want everyone to have the same amount of everything. They are not. They have a feral streak in them, like a horse that’s just pretending to be broken.

Did your skin just crawl a little bit? If someone had written something like that about the people of the Korean peninsula — or any other nonwhite ethnicity, really — and published it in a piece of pop-nonfiction, he’d have his feet to the fire. 

Yet Michael Lewis — the superstar author of Moneyball, The Big Short, and The Blind Side— managed to write that little passage about the population of Iceland and get away with it. It’s just one of the offensive declarations Lewis makes about ethnic groups throughout the world in his new book, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World. And yet, the tome has garnered massive critical acclaim, bestseller status, and a spot on airport bookshelves across the planet.

I’ll admit that I’m a newcomer to the world of travel literature. Perhaps cringe-inducing generalization is par for the course. But the book is primarily a work of financial journalism — Lewis is analyzing the instability of countries ravaged by our age’s never-ending economic crisis. Genre conventions aren’t much of an excuse.

Although Icelanders aren’t the only population he rips into, they’re the target of some of his most eyebrow-raising statements. First off, there’s his repeated and unironic use of the phrase “the Icelandic male.” For example, this tidbit shows up in a description of the country’s disastrous attempt to move away from fishing as an income source: “The Icelandic male had a propensity to try to fix something it wasn’t his job to fix.”

It’s not as though he was embedded in Reykjavík for very long, either — he admits he was in the country “for all of ten days.” And yet, you could spend an entire cultural sensitivity seminar just quoting his account. The island’s politics are, apparently, defined by racial tendencies: “That a nation of 300,000 people, all of whom are related by blood, needs four major political parties suggests either a talent for disagreement or an unwillingness to listen to one another.” A couple having sex in the room next to his sounds like a “hobbit in Lord of the Rings. Gollum, Gollum! Mordor, Mordor! Then I realize: it’s just Icelandic.” The list goes on and the mind boggles.

The perpetually-freefalling Greeks are hardly spared the Lewis treatment, either. The chapter about his trip to the debt-ridden nation — queasily titled “And They Invented Math” — is less overt in its quasi-bigotry, but it’s undeniably present.

“The hardest thing to do in Greece is to get one Greek to compliment another behind his back,” he claims. When he writes about the Greek government’s sale of thousands of state properties to raise revenue, he claims that it’s “safe to say that the idea of doing this had not come from the Greeks” — and then offers no follow-up argument whatsoever. What, they can’t come up with good ideas? I thought they invented math!

Boomerang is not an awful book. Most of the text is dedicated to pithy — if sometimes dilettantish — analysis. Even in the realm of ethnic description, Lewis isn’t all oversimplification and bile. The Irish emerge unscathed from his account of them. Despite his fixation on German culture’s fascination with excrement, his chapter on Germany is relatively benign. Well, except when he says the German avoidance of the Madoff ponzi scheme was “perhaps the only advantage to the German financial system of having no Jews” (irksome not just for its casual toss-off about the Holocaust but also its assumption that only Jews were caught in Madoff’s web).

But on the whole, it’s remarkable that so many people have discounted, accepted, or simply overlooked Lewis’s ethnic condescension. Just because his targets are white doesn’t mean he deserves carte blanche.

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  1. Maybe you’re confusing geographic generalization for ethnic generalization. Broad-brush assessment of a national character might be a lazy and somewhat annoying tactic, but it’s not racism. Would a generalization about “the American male” offend you? Maybe it would, as facile analysis; but not as a racial smear.

    1. A fair point, except that there’s a crucial difference between America and the countries about which Lewis is writing: they’re all nation-states. “American” has little to no ethnic connotation; “Icelandic” means both the Icelandic people *and* citizens of Iceland. Same for “Greek,” “German,” and “Irish.” Adjectives can be persnickety in these situations.

      1. Right, but I’m wondering if you mistook the geographic nomenclature for the ethnic–since, as you point out, the language is the same for both. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t really say you’re wrong, but I think a writer should be free to discuss the characteristics of a place’s inhabitants without fear of being accused of “ethnic condescension.”

  2. @Chris (not sure if the reply function is working): As it is, Lewis doesn’t really make much of a distinction, and often talks about the bloodlines and thousand-year histories of the nations about which he’s writing. The reader is left to assume that he’s either talking about ethnicity or simply not distinguishing between ethnicity and citizenship.