For the past three decades, Michael Lewis has been amongst the best non-fiction writers in the world. For the past few years, Samanth Subramanian has been amongst the best young journalists in the world. So, when Samanth Subramanian writes about Michael Lewis, you know that you are bound to get great copy. This long piece in The Guardian is a firecracker of an article. Mr Subramanian starts by setting the scene, “Lewis’s ambition is to show how our world is revolutionised by nobodies – by clever people who are modestly known in their own fields but certainly not household names. He finds these people so unfailingly that it counts as his most brilliant skill. He tells their stories with verve, but he also makes a kind of implicit prediction every time. His oddballs may think about their work in deviant ways, Lewis argues, but hindsight will prove them right. And as the discoverer of such wise minds, Lewis himself acquires a similar reputation for sagacity – for seeing what others don’t see.”
Soon, Mr Subramanian shows just why because of his ability to simplify the abstract and the complex, aspiring writers die to write like him: “In any Michael Lewis book, someone is noodling through dense data to gain some sort of edge. Lewis seeks these people out. He is attracted, Whitney told me, “to the land of misfit toys”. He sees not just the drama but also the absurd comedy of their situations….
These books do such tremendous business that Lewis changes people’s lives merely by watching and writing about them. It doesn’t even need Brad Pitt to play you in the movie adaptation, as happened with Billy Beane, the baseball manager in Moneyball. The book causes commotion enough. Katsuyama, thrust into a circuit of CNBC appearances and Senate testimonies after Flash Boys came out, said with a grimace: “That variety of fame was not something I needed.”…often, one of Lewis’s characters – as he calls them, and as they think of themselves – will put him in touch with more people to write about…
Starling Lawrence, Lewis’s longtime editor, once proposed to him that all his books were about markets: about how people act in market-like situations, for instance, or about the market for baseball players….
Ira Glass, the host of This American Life and a sporadic collaborator with Lewis over the years, offered me another theory. So many of his books, Glass said, are about people who manage to behave rationally in the midst of irrationality, “about people who recognise something important that other people don’t recognise. That’s what he’s attracted to and finds over and over. Because that’s what Lewis does himself. That’s his gig.””
Then we get down to the main point of the article, namely, did Michael Lewis get too close to his latest ‘character’, the now notorious Sam Bankman-Fried: “…during the spectacular fall from grace of the cryptocurrency entrepreneur Sam Bankman-Fried, when it emerged that Lewis had already been shadowing him for months to write a book, no one was shocked…
Lewis met Bankman-Fried two years ago, when his crypto exchange FTX was valued at more than $25bn, and when even sober observers thought he might become history’s first trillionaire. They’d been introduced by Katsuyama, who was considering selling a stake in IEX to FTX. He asked Lewis for a favour: would he meet Bankman-Fried to get a read on him? (For his part, Bankman-Fried told Lewis that Liar’s Poker was one of the few books he’d ever finished.) Lewis came away impressed. In Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon – the book that was eventually born out of this meeting – Lewis quotes himself telling Katsuyama: “Do whatever he wants to do! What could possibly go wrong?””
Now, if ordinary mortals like us get a call like that wrong, we will be pilloried in social media. But Michael Lewis is no ordinary mortal. What follows next is a case study for why taking outsized calls in modern life is a good idea (even if you get the call wrong): “…as FTX crashed and burned, Lewis was allowed to stick around and take notes. It was such an incredible sequence of events that it ratified Lewis as a wildly lucky journalist, someone preordained to always happen upon the ideal character to carry the ideal story. Or as Beane told me with a laugh: “Michael’s got a horseshoe in his underwear.”
Even the sketchy early details of Going Infinite, the chronicle of Bankman-Fried’s self-combustion, promised such an eyeball-scorching view of the inferno that Apple paid $5m for the TV rights without seeing a word of the manuscript. But the book is also unlike any other by Lewis, in how its narrative ambushed him. He’d set out to understand Bankman-Fried, but Bankman-Fried defeated his customary powers of perceptiveness. Lewis didn’t expect bankruptcy and scandal – and he definitely didn’t expect to have to figure out what to do if his hero abruptly turned out to be a villain.”
So why did Michael Lewis misread Sam Bankman-Fried? To find out, you should read the entire article from Samanth Subramanian. Unless you have a rocket taking you into outer space today, there is no better way to spend the morning reading one terrific writer describing another.
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