Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Craig Thompson, Darian Leader and William Nicholson.

Habibi by Craig Thompson

Craig Thompson is back with another graphic novel, Habibi, following his award-winning Blankets. Set in the Middle East, Habibi "follows the fortunes of Dodola, an Arab girl sold into child marriage by her illiterate parents," writes Michel Faber in the Guardian. "Dodola hones a love of numbers and narrative which helps her survive her subsequent adventures." These include "breakneck escapes from a slave market and an execution squad (some of the most thrilling action sequences I've seen in comics for years.) ... At heart, however, Habibi is a love story between Dodola and Zam, a black slave she adopts as an infant."

Faber notes that "Thompson clearly adores the beauty of Arabic calligraphy and is enthralled by the landscape and people of the Arab world." However, "despite its visual splendours and sincere message, Habibi is ultimately wearisome. Part of the problem is its sheer length." It is "an orgy of art for its own sake."

By contrast, Inbali Iserles writes in the Independent that "the book is destined to become an instant classic, confirming the author's position among not only the most masterful of graphic novelists but our finest contemporary writers, regardless of medium."

A interesting illustrated review by M.C.'s Canvas on the Washington Post's entertainment blog is prefaced with this remark: "mere words . . . seemed not enough to even try to convey just how intricate and ornate, lush and seductive, arabesque and sometimes knowingly grotesque this artistic epic is."

What is Madness? by Darian Leader

In the Independent's review, Hanif Kureishi writes that "Darian Leader brilliantly shows [that] ... deciding who the mad actually are ... is quite a job. After a hundred years no one has come up with a diagnosis which most psychiatrists can agree on." Alexander Linklater in the Observer finds that "because [Leader] sees reason in madness [he] ... can ... argue that there is no such thing as 'mental illness' - he views madness as a natural response to unbearable experience."

"Darian Leader belongs to the most endangered clinical world-view of them all: that of the psychoanalyst," suggests Linklater. However, "for every useful criticism, Leader cannot resist the temptation to flip over into shrill condemnation . . .. The suggestion that the medical mainstream is insane puts a huge burden on the author to prove the sanity of his own system - and this will not be entirely evident to the agnostic reader."

Kureishi writes that "Leader reminds us that adults have been vulnerable children for a long time and therefore are difficult to change. They love their symptoms, usually more than they love their lives." In the New Statesman, Lisa Appignanesi describes What Is Madness? as "a humane and timely book ... What Leader does so effectively is to give us a sense of what it might be like to live inside the mind of a psychotic ... [He] teases out ways for the analyst to stay attentive to this inner world and to stabilise it."

The Golden Hour by William Nicholson

In the Observer's review, Viv Groskop reports that in The Golden Hour, Oscar-nominated screenwriter William Nicholson "returns to his stamping ground - angsty, middle-class families in Lewes, East Sussex - but with even more ease and confidence than the previous two books that make up this sort-of trilogy [The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life and All the Hopeful Lovers.]" Jane Shilling explains in the Telegraph that "the novel is loosely linked by character and location to its two predecessors. Laura and Henry Broad [who] reappear, grappling with the problems of middle age."

Groskop comments that "there's so much dialogue it sometimes reads like a screenplay and the quickfire exchanges can distract from the more philosophical asides ... It comes across a bit like Downton Abbey: ... you know that you're going to love it at some point, but you sometimes have to sit through too much well-meaning exposition." Shilling concludes that it is "not a voyage of discovery, exactly [but]an agreeable ramble," a "book with which to fill an idle afternoon".

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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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