Without The Blind Side, the Tuohys would be a family of local saints; with it, they are something like national heroes, touring the country from speaking engagement to speaking engagement on a kind of paid victory lap. They may be the most enterprising beneficiaries of a phenomenon now so common it deserves to be called the Michael Lewis Effect—the way the author makes his subjects into celebrities just by writing about them, endowing obscure figures with major profiles, intellectual prestige, even earning power.
“He changed my life,” Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane had told me the day before, bouncing through the Oakland Coliseum on a golf cart between his own press appearances for the movie Moneyball, adapted from Lewis’s baseball book turned management manifesto. Beane had been a backroom-style executive in a forgettable market—a pretty good gig if you like baseball, but nothing that would get you recognized in the street—before Lewis’s 2003 Moneyball proclaimed him a genius for his team’s use of sabermetrics, an arcane statistical method of evaluating players. The book, which sold over a million copies, changed the way baseball was played, made “Moneyball” a shorthand term for data-driven innovation in any field, and turned Beane himself into a savant legend well outside of baseball circles. Though he’s still not quite as well known as the guy who sneaks up behind him and slaps him on the back as Beane walks to his next interview. “Hey, man,” says a familiar voice. That would be Brad Pitt, who plays him in the movie.
"Michael does this over and over again,” says Don Epstein, the agent who handles Lewis’s speaking engagements, which are plentiful and remunerative. Epstein also handles Lewis’s remarkable spillover: When Lewis does a book, he often puts the people he writes about in touch with Epstein, because, inevitably, they are going to need an agent, too. Even supporting characters are in demand: Epstein books for Paul DePodesta, Moneyball’s number-crunching straight man; Susan “Miss Sue” Mitchell, who tutored Michael Oher in The Blind Side; and Meredith Whitney, the financial analyst whose early warnings about subprime debt were highlighted in Lewis’s financial-crisis narrative The Big Short. “It’s almost like he stamps his own brand on you by writing about you,” says Whitney.
Lewis is often referred to as a business writer, and this is sort of true, in that his narratives usually focus on some kind of market, be it for bonds or baseball players. But he’s a business writer only in the same way that Malcolm Gladwell is a business writer. What most interests him are people and how they behave. He tends to favor stories about mavericks—like the Tuohys, Beane, Whitney, and Steve Eisman, the eccentric short-seller star of The Big Short—smart people who identify gaps of logic and market inefficiencies, and take advantage of them.