Ariele University: David and Goliath

The next installment in my fake master’s degree comes to you by way of the book David and Goliath, by Malcolm Gladwell. Excellent book, one which I highly recommend you read. For my assignment, I wrote a 1500 word essay on how the concepts that he discusses relate to being an author. I’m not going to lie—it was supposed to be a 500 word essay, but I had a lot to say about it lol.

Authors Overcoming the Odds

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Underdog stories are everywhere. Look at Harry Potter. Luke & Leia Skywalker. Matilda. Frodo Baggins. Katniss. Alanna of Trebond. It’s not just characters, either.[1] Look at J.K. Rowling. Everyone’s favorite story about her is how she was a poor, single mother living off of welfare.[2] They like to quote how many rejection letters she received for her books before she was accepted by a publisher.[3] Or, think of the oft-quoted fun fact about Stephen King—how he lived in a trailer before his book Carrie took off.[4] We like to tell stories of great changes in fate, of the strength and power it takes to defeat overwhelming odds. We like to tell tales of Hercules, athletes with disabilities, mountain climbers. And we all want to have that story ourselves—we just want to skip over the hard part, of course.

In Malcom Gladwell’s book, David and Goliath, he takes a closer look not only at why humans find this plot archetype so appealing, but also at real life examples of underdogs achieving success and conquering the day.[5] From battles to doctors to history to athletes to everyday people, Gladwell continually comes back to the point that the underdogs who have won are the ones who broke the rules. I think this concept applies to writing and marketing as well—the writers and authors that have been the most successful are the ones that broke the rules, either with their writing or with their marketing. They’re the ones that did it their own way. Ultimately, I believe there is no one way to succeed at writing and publishing; your best bet is to determine your own strengths and weaknesses, and to forge your own path.[6]

So, what does this look like in practice? Take J.K. Rowling. The Harry Potter series rose in popularity quickly, and has sold 500 million books worldwide,[7] in addition to birthing the movies, Pottermore, and endless merchandise. The reasons why the series was so popular range from luck to excellent writing to timing,[8] but the one thing that you can see across the theories is that J.K. Rowling’s series broke all the rules. It was fantasy, when fantasy was considered “old-fashioned,”[9] she wrote children’s books that appealed to adults, she wrote in her voice, her own story, her own way.

Another easy example is Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. Fifty Shades of Grey began as an erotic fan fiction (both erotic and fan fiction  were looked down upon at the time) of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight.[10] James published it first on a fan-fiction site, then took it down and republished it on her own website. She then re-published it as paperbacks. Fifty Shades of Grey is frequently dismissed by the writing community as being drivel; British Indian novelist and essayist Salman Rushdie said of it, “I've never read anything so badly written that got published. It made Twilight look like War and Peace.”[11] There also was a lot of controversy over the erotic practices in it, many stating that the book portrays abuse, not BDSM.[12] But, Fifty Shades of Grey still sold 60 million copies and became the best-selling book of all time.[13] Why? Because E.L. James ignored the rules. She wrote what she wanted, how she wanted, published it where she wanted and the way she wanted—and with a little bit of luck, she took the world by storm.

Gladwell starts David and Goliath with the biblical story of David and Goliath. But his very first point is that the story of David and Goliath is not entirely what it seems. He cites history and the known culture of the time, and points out a few key facts. First, that the fight they were having was a custom known as single combat, in which one warrior would represent each side of the conflict (p 6). Typically, these battles were fought hand-to-hand, so Goliath prepared himself accordingly, with a javelin and heavy armor (p 7). David, on the other hand, wore no heavy armor, and took only his sling with him—intending to fight as a projectile warrior (p 10-11) . Secondly, Gladwell points out that Goliath likely had a medical condition called acromegaly, which causes overproduction of the human growth hormone and would likely explain Goliath’s enormous size. Another symptom of this disease is vision problems, which would explain Goliath’s slow movement (p 14). In short, the battle of David and Goliath was not entirely as it seemed.

I think Gladwell’s main point is that David and Goliath were fighting two different battles. Goliath was preparing to fight a heavily armored, hand-to-hand battle where strength and size would go a long way towards achieving victory. David went in planning to fight a fast, dirty battle, where all he had to do was avoid Goliath’s weapons (easily done with a sling) and aim for the head.

A lot of the stories Gladwell shares come down to this same dichotomy: one side is fighting a battle for dominance, the other for survival; one is fighting for ethics, the other saving lives; one is fighting for money, the other is fighting to win. I don’t think any of us can look at an author like J.K. Rowling or E.L. James and know exactly battle they were fighting, but I do think it is valuable to think about our own battles. What are we trying to achieve? Where are we going? And what is the best way to get there?

In indie publishing, the initial battle was stigma. Once e-books took off in popularity, the attitude of non-traditionally published authors was that they couldn’t get published by a traditionally publishing house because their books weren’t good enough, that authors were self-publishing just for their own ego.[14] So everyone started hiring editors, cover designers, people to help them make their books as quality as possible. And now, as indie publishing becomes more and more popular, the stigma is dying away.[15], [16] But many smaller battles have arisen—battles with Amazon over seemingly endless issues, battles over reviews, battles in which smaller or more diverse voices are trying to have more sway. The newest frustration voiced by many authors is visibility: Bowker announced in 2018 that over 1 million books were self-published in 2017.[17] And according to Worldometer, at the time I’m writing this, over 1.6 million books have already been published in 2019.[18]

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In conclusion to his retelling of David and Goliath, Gladwell says, “in reality, the very thing that gave [Goliath] his size was also the source of his greatest weakness. There is an important lesson in that for battles with all kinds of giants. The powerful and the strong are not what they seem.” (p 15) As authors, we are all in some kind of race or battle or uphill climb—whatever metaphor you prefer. But the question still remains: what are you fighting for?

“Courage is not something that you already have that makes you brave when the tough times start. Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all.” – Malcom Gladwell (p 149)






[5] Early in David and Goliath, Gladwell suggests taking an in depth look at wars over the course of the last two centuries, specifically ones where a large country was pitted against a small one—wars where from the outside, it was obvious who was going to win, odds ten to one in favor of the larger country. Most would assume that close to 100% of the larger countries won those wars. But, “When the political scientist Ivan Arreguin-Toft did the calculation… what he came up with was 71.5 percent. Just under a third of the time, the weaker country wins” (p 21). And when Arreguin-Toft looked at the same question from a different way, and narrowed the sample size to those underdogs that refused to fight the wars by the rules, using unconventional or guerilla tactics, “the weaker party’s winning percentage climbs from 28.5 to 63.6 percent” (p 22). 

[6] I do think that doing your own thing can go horribly wrong, or at very least, just plain old fail. I met a writer last year, in his mid-fifties, who spent a good ten minutes talking to me about J.K. Rowling. “I wrote a story about an academy for wizards ten years before she did!” he complained. “It had unicorns and everything!” Clearly, he did not read Harry Potter (unicorns are not a main plot point), but I think his concerns bring up an important point. Writing in your own voice will not necessarily get you noticed. He also self-published book—simply self-publishing will not necessarily get you noticed. But I also did a survey of his work—poor prose, poorly edited, and even if you look at his work after the Harry Potter phenomenon, despite him having run his career his own way, there wasn’t really anything unique enough about it nothing to make it rise to the top of the pot.










[16] I’m honestly not convinced about this. I still get disapproving looks when I tell people I’m indie published, and always hesitate when people ask what publishing house I’m with. Can’t be legit if a corporation didn’t say it was, I guess. Snobs. Also narrow minded and stupid. (I have strong feelings about this lol).