Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Christopher Adrian, Katherine Frank and Ed: the Milibands and the Making of

The Great Night by Christopher Adrian

"In this mesmerising reworking of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the action is transposed from a wood near Athens to 21st century San Francisco's Buena Vista Park," writes Olivia Laing in the Observer. "One wonders whether he took Bottom the Weaver's final admonishment - 'Rehearse most obscenely and courageously. Take pains; be perfect' - to heart, for this magical and fearless work is a near-blueprint of what a novel ought to be."

Keith Donohue in the Washington Post highlights the difference in direction caused by Adrian's plot twists, writing: "That dissonance with the original undermines Adrian's considerable powers. Moments of comedy -- from slapstick to farce -- exist in the novel, but they are mixed with graphic violence and anonymous sex. Rather than ending upon a dream, 'The Great Night' aches with lost love and the torturous ordeal of childhood caught between innocence and awakening. For a novel based upon a classic comedy, it's devastating."

Jake Wallis Simons remains unconvinced by Shakespeare's real role in the book, writing in the Independent: "From the start, it is clear that Adrian is bending Shakespeare's template to his own purposes...His writing is evocative and unsettling in equal measure, yet this seems to be more about the author exploring his own feelings about child mortality than creating anything truly new from the materials of one of the Bard's most popular plays."

Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox and the Creation of a Myth by Katherine Frank

This book proposes that Defoe based his survival story on the life of a Mr Robert Knox, keeps Jonathan Sale interested, as he writes in the Telegraph: "The enthralling Crusoe earns its keep as it weaves together the twin biographies of Knox and Defoe, two extraordinary lives which spiral round like the double helix to produce the DNA of the iconic character in goatskin garments."

The Observer's Peter Conrad gives a very terse review however, writing: "Although Knox and Defoe lived within a few miles of each other in London, they never met; Defoe read Knox's book, though the novel in which he makes use of it was not Crusoe but Captain Singleton...Given the lack of any further connection between the two men, how can Frank justify forcibly coupling them in this dual biography? Only, I'm afraid, by over-stretched analogies and questionable metaphors."

Andrew Robinson writing in the Independent is not wholly convinced either: "Frank points to many similarities between Robinson Crusoe and Knox's Relation. Some are easy to spot, for instance the Bible both Knox and Crusoe stumble upon, and their method of baking bread. Others are more debatable."

Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader by Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre

TheTelegraph's Peter Oborne writes: "Their book is shrewd, scrupulously researched and provides revelations on every page: for instance, the fact that Gordon Brown adores Ed Miliband 'like a son'; the strength of the collusion between Ed and the trade unions; the decisive role played by Neil Kinnock in persuading him to run against his brother. It provides the basis for any serious understanding both of Ed Miliband and the modern Labour Party."

"Political journalists Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre are by instinct sympathetic to their main subject," says Sunder Katwala, writing in the Observer. "But they take care to do a straight reporting job, painstakingly comparing the accounts of sources from all sides to unpack the history of what they call the "fratricide" of Miliband v Miliband."

John Kampfner in the Sunday Times is less enthralled, writing: "The book comes into its own with its blow-by-blow account of the leadership contest. Yet, no matter how hard the authors try, The Brothers Miliband is not the stuff of Dostoevsky. Their lives simply do not provide interesting enough material for all but the political geek."

Roy Hattersley will review "Ed" in Thursday's New Statesman

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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era