Discovering David Foster Wallace

I've come to his work late, but I'm looking forward to reading it all.

There's a bookshop in my favourite part of the city in which I live in which marauds an unshaven man with dishevelled hair. I know nothing about this man, but he is the tool with which I measure the aptness and the good sense of my taste in literature. Usually, he is found to be in one of two positions: either lying on the sofa looking angry, or deliberately disordering the books on his shelves (he owns the shop, and he's entirely right to think that people will stay longer if his books aren't alphabetised. It's because of wisdom like this that I use him as my tool). It was from this man that I bought the only book I own by David Foster Wallace - and when I bought it his features reassembled themselves from a look of slight fury into a look of slight misery. This is what he does when he thinks you have made an excellent choice of book. I promptly congratulated myself.

Wallace is a much talked about author. He is also an author whom I hadn't read, and knew nothing about. I began reading Oblivion, which I discovered was the last work of fiction to be published before his death, and was suspicious. To my closed and inattentive ears, Wallace is one of those writers who inspires an untrustworthy intensity of love in otherwise trustworthy people. It's not that I didn't want to like Wallace, or even that I crassly sought to disagree with those who liked him for no reason other than the contrariness; but many admirable minds laud him as one of the greatest novelists of his "generation", and I distrust both praise and references to generations. Imagine the delight and the shame I felt when I discovered that Wallace wrote a mockery of the hagiographic use of "generation" too - in his short story "Death Is Not the End" he writes a parodic biography of a dead poet which "two separate American generations have hailed as the voice of their generation".

By virtue of almost nothing other than my own ignorance, I suppose I'm ripe to fall into the second generation of Wallace admirers (which is exactly what I am - I decided a couple of days ago whilst sitting on the Northern line). The forthcoming, posthumously published novel The Pale King is not a book that I, unlike Wallace's legion of fans, have been "eagerly awaiting". It's not even a book I knew existed until recently - but in reading two early reviews (in Time and GQ), I've learnt the odd thing about Wallace that has made me abandon my scepticism. What would Wallace think about the consolidation of my respect growing from the textual peripheries of others, rather than from his own writing? I suppose he'd look sad and shrug, but then, I haven't even finished Oblivion yet, so I wouldn't know. In any case, I should qualify myself - my respect has been consolidated not by these reviews, but by the extracts of Wallace's writing embedded in them.

Still, assertions like Lev Grossman's (in the Time review) that Wallace's remaining notebooks are "chewed over and bent and practically charred by the intellectual energy Wallace expended in them" are symptomatic of the kind of mythologising that good dead authors find themselves subject to. That one of these notebooks had a picture of one of the Rugrats on the front is testament of how, to put it tritely, paper was paper to Wallace. I'm not sure he'd want his manuscripts monumentalized - tempting as that might be. "He switched pens practically every paragraph" Grossman breathlessly notes. Well, he probably didn't. And if he did, that makes him silly, not a genius.

His essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again begins quietly with a distancing "supposedly" and escalates into an absolution of a "never again" - which sounds both a threat and a loss, like a child covering disappointment with disobedience. It makes me wonder, of the so many people who have waited for The Pale King, how many would really have the ability to be disappointed with this last slice of Wallace. John Jeremiah Sullivan articulates a feeling that any reader who has fallen in love with an author has felt: "I was surprised to have the wind sucked out of me by the thought ... that there would be no more Wallace books". Perhaps this is the best thing about my slowly dissolving ignorance: I've got a lot of Wallace books still left to read.

Jonathan Derbyshire reviews "The Pale King" in this week's issue of the New Statesman

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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