Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Shalom Auslander, Jonathan Lethem and Richard Holloway.

Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander

In The Independent, Doug Johnstone makes plain that Shalom Auslander has done the unthinkable - made light of surely the darkest era of 20th-century history. Moreover, he has done so in a manner that would humble even the imagination of one of Hollywood's most celebrated names: "We all know that the Holocaust is a great source of comedy, right? OK, maybe not, but in the hands of the brilliant US writer Shalom Auslander, it becomes so ... In the strong tradition of Jewish humour, his writing is incredibly sharp, hugely self-deprecating, riddled with insecurities and hang-ups, and often stupendously funny. At times, Hope: A Tragedy, his first novel, reads a little like the kind of film Woody Allen wouldn't dare make anymore - or never had the balls to make in the first place."

In Johnstone's digest of the story, its absurdities become clear: "He finds Anne Frank hiding in his attic. A very old and decrepit Anne Frank. It turns out that she didn't die in Belsen but was smuggled out of Europe by guilt-stricken Germans, and has spent the past 65 years cooped up in various lofts, working on a novel ... Of course, having sold 32 million copies of her diary, she's suffering from writers' block. On top of which, her publishers don't particularly want her alive, as her non-death could affect diary sales." Auslander's sheer originality, though, says Johnstone, more than compensates for the uniquely dubious virtue of meddling with the brute facts of Nazi atrocities, the author's jesting as central to his polemic as his integrity: "Auslander previously wrote a fantastic story collection, Beware of God, and a jaw-dropping memoir entitled Foreskin's Lament, but the form of the novel seems to have focused his anger and humour into truly fearsome weapons."

Naomi Alderman, in the Guardian, sees pathos as well as brilliance in Auslander's characterisations, hypocrisy and purported infertility justifying and impeding their rhetoric and objectives: "Kugel's mother - who's lived in the United States all her life - transfers her anger at the husband who left her ('that son of a bitch') effortlessly to the Nazis ('those sons of bitches'), and excuses all her bad behaviour with the sigh "ever since the war". Kugel's sister and her husband come to stay, constantly having noisy sex in their "dogged, relentless" attempts to conceive." It is, says Alderman, as much through the techniques and form of Auslander's writing as through his descriptions that the moral import of the Holocaust is illustrated: "It's in the soliloquies and reflections that this book really shines. This is a novel about what happens when you realise that the Holocaust is right there. That it never went away and it's hovering, right now, just above your head."

In the Telegraph, Gerald Jacobs finds both an autobiographical element and the classic trappings of cultural humour pervading Auslander's latest offering: "Auslander has continued his iconoclastic rebellion against his upbringing by writing a novel, Hope: A Tragedy. Its narrative voice is that of the witty pessimist - a classic, Jewish comic stance..." Noting that Auslander's prose will deter as many readers as it attracts, he observes the creative miracle through which virtuosity supplants perversity: "Many will find the theme too serious - and the attic-dweller too revered a person - for humour. But the disarming enormity of the laughter that Auslander creates compels attention to the shocking enormity of his subject matter. Humour can be a serious business. Thank God."

The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. by Jonathan Lethem

Stuart Kelly writes in the Guardian that Jonathan Lethem's book is no haphazard collation of disparate pieces, but a series of essays that, for all their diversity, evince genuine coherence: "This is not, thankfully, one of those ragbag anthologies of non-fiction that fiction writers throw together when their cuttings drawer becomes full. Rather, like Zadie Smith's Changing My Mind or Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends, it is a curated selection of essays which thematically add up to more than the sum of its parts." The dual pleasure of this volume, for Kelly, is the enjoyment of reading about varied subjects that reveal something of how Lethem selects his themes: "The pleasure for readers is twofold: on one hand, there is the intrinsic interest in the subjects (as various as Shirley Jackson and nude life models, hitch-hiking in Utah and the top five depressed superheroes). On the other, there's the fact that this is Lethem telling us these things, and how it gives an insight into his own creative practice."

In the Independent, Joy Lo Dico recalls Lethem's 2007 essay on a Bob Dylan album and asks whether it borrows too heavily from canonical western texts: "Consider ...T S Eliot's The Wasteland and Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, each works that revel in cultural plunder. Then consider Disney, which has cartoonised the fairy tale Cinderella and J M Barrie's Peter Pan but guards its own intellectual property fiercely." As Lo Dico relates, that essay is included in Lethem's new book. There is a tension, she says, between Lethem's coveting membership of the literary canon and his later estrangement from certain of its key players: "You ...come away with an impression that this volume is about Lethem's anxiety about his own standing in the intellectual pantheon"/"....elbows himself into the proximity of great people, ideas and events, then angles himself away."

Dwight Garner, in the New York Times, remarkss Lethem's thoroughgoing adulation of those he admires most: "Like almost everything Mr. Lethem has written, The Ecstasy of Influence is a reflection of, and a pixelated homage to, those whose work he fetishises. If this book has a thesis, it's this: For an artist, influence is everything. 'Wasn't the whole 20th century,' he writes, 'a victory lap of collage, quotation, appropriation, from Picasso to Dada to Pop?'" Garner lists the remarks Lethem makes about his literary contemporaries, and how his frustration at Bret Easton Ellis's seamless graduation from affluence to notoriety was tempered only by his regard for him: "About Mr. Ellis, he writes: 'Bret stood perfectly for what outraged me at that school, and terrified me, too, the blithe conversion of privilege into artistic fame. It was inconvenient that I liked him.'" For Garner, the book is "fat, hip and garrulous" - not necessarily virtues one would have thought.

Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway

In the Financial Times, John Lloyd emphasises the moments of doubt and pure bafflement in Richard Holloway's memoir: "Leaving Alexandria, is a long wrestle with a lifetime in which knowing oneself is a matter of peeling away layer after layer of limitation, conservatism, unexamined belief, inherited instinct and incomprehension." Holloway wonders, says Lloyd, whether even the Bede-like capacities of Rowan Williams will be sufficient to mend divisions within the Church: "He believes the Anglican community will unravel, and that there is nothing that the 'saintly scholar', the present archbishop, Rowan Williams, can do about it."

Andrew Motion, in the Guardian, notes that although Holloway's doubts were sometimes a source of frustration, there was also something curiously seductive for him about that involuntary distance from belief: "Filled with self-arguing: he accused himself more or less continually of lacking faith and obedience ... but the sceptical Holloway felt the force of his doubts was irresistible. Although he did some wonderful work as bishop, especially in the cause of women priests, as well as gay priests, by his own admission, he was 'deficient in the carefulness gene'". What Holloway offers, says Motion, are tantalising speculations as to whether religion and God himself are human concoctions: "'The mistake,' he says, 'was to think religion was more than human. I was less sure whether God was also just a human invention, but I was sure religion was.' This is simply put, but with the whole weight of a very thoughtful and courageous book behind it, it summarises an argument that a lot of people will find sympathetic, as well as compelling."

In the Telegraph, David Robson wonders if Holloway perhaps steals his own show: "The human content is sketchy. Holloway marries and has three children, but none of his family are more than ciphers - one would have liked to know them better." That said, Holloway covers the many loyalties of his professional life with notable clarity: "As a curate in the Gorbals, Holloway focuses on the poor. In a wealthy parish in Boston, he is confronted with a growing clamour for women to be ordained as priests. Religious fashions come and go." Believers are entitled to their faith, says Robson, but would do well not to wear it on their sleeve: "Holloway certainly throws down the gauntlet - with a quiet, elegiac passion - to Christians who arm themselves in certainty... They should read this wise, erudite book as a matter of urgency, and with an open mind."

Each of the three books discussed above will be reviewed in forthcoming editions 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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