Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Adam Phillips, Paul Theroux and Dambisa Moyo.

Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, by Adam Phillips

Adam Phillips cares about who you want to be. In this collection of five essays, he claims "that our unlived lives – the lives we live in fantasy, the wished-for lives – are often more important to us than our so-called lived lives.” Christina Patterson claims, in the Independent, that the book is “all interesting stuff … peppered with the kind of insights that make you scrawl 'yes!' in the margins on almost every page.” Focused on the fantasy life, this book is, at its core, about “what you can't and shouldn't want to get.” It attacks these intangible but universal truths of the fantasy life and provides the reader with “glimpses of the real, true, messy and never knowable human heart.”

Talitha Stevenson, in this week’s New Statesman, and James Lasdun, in the Guardian, disagree. Far from showing a glimpse of a messy truth, this collection of essays seems to have messed lines of literature and psychiatry to the point of obscurity. Lasdun argues that “the places where Phillips permits himself to write from direct professional experience are incomparably more persuasive and engaging, and I wished there were more of them.” Stevenson echoes this, going so far as to say that although Phillips is “master of the lexical sleight of hand”, his movement between psychoanalyst and literary critic leaves a confused style which “is all so elegant, so intelligent, that to point this out is to call the emperor naked.” Despite the truths which Patterson may have found in this book, it seems that many of the concepts are left to be too abstract, poetical and beautifully obscure. In Stevenson’s words “to favour fantasy-fantasy over reality-fantasy is to fantasise a great deal away”.

The Lower River, by Paul Theroux

The Lower River paints a “savage, sometimes shocking story of love lost and won”, reports Christopher Hope in the Guardian. A story of an American returning to happy memories of being upheld as a hero in an undeveloped African village, Theroux’s novel follows closely the deep disappointment of a man whose hopes are reduced by reality. Touching on truth, both autobiographical and political, The Lower River “is a masterly, moving portrait of how Africa ensnares and enchants and plays merry hell with sentimentalities.” More than that, it manages to depict honestly the impact of the aid which Hock, the main character, so loved providing to this small African village, which left the years later “hungry, desperate and angry”, “unhappier and more dependent than ever”. This book reads true and by that it is “likely to cause some consternation- and so much the better if it does.”

Philip Womack, writing in the Telegraph, argues that novels about Africa are steeped in literary history, from Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, both empowering and constraining the modern writer. Theroux’s writing rises to the challenge and with “solemn, sleek sentences of acute descriptive ability” he is able to “induce a tension of uncanny grip”. With a delicate understanding of the subject matter, both the internal struggle for a return to happiness and the external realities of the difficulties of the villagers, Theroux succeeds in moving beyond the constraints of  the Heart of Darkness. He creates a “tensely woven fiction that is a shocking commentary on human nature, and how it deals, brutally, with what it believes to be “other””.

Winner Take All, by Dambisa Moyo

Dambisa Moyo’s first book, Dead Aid, received widespread accreditation and support. Writing on aid in this week’s issue of the New Statesman, she put forward a debate to rival that of Paddy Ashdown. High hopes, therefore, surrounded the release of Winner Take All. They were hopes which David Blair, writing in the Telegraph, claims were dashed. The issue of the longevity of China’s meteoric growth is increasingly important in an economically uncertain world; “this is just the moment for a good China book, soberly assessing the country’s prospects, refusing to assume that the future must be like the past”. A “good China book” is not, he argues, what Moyo has produced. It is, instead “a flawed and frustrating book, simplistic, poorly written, careless with facts and largely devoid of originality”. Lacking original research, “this book clearly owes much to Google: the author relies entirely on reports downloaded from the United Nations and sundry think tanks.” Worse, though, the book manages to paint a picture of disaster without a focus on the possibility of reduced growth: “Wen Jiabao’s worries about the future viability of China’s model are not even considered.”

John Gapper, at the Financial Times, has more time for Moyo’s book. He argues that “one cannot accuse Moyo of failing to do her homework. So much has been packed into it that her book is impossible to read without learning something. Even asides such as her explanation of the potential and risks of shale gas fracking are replete with numbers and tables.” However, even with this compliment, Gapper admits, that rather than being a measured and considered weighing of arguments, Winner Take All is “a warning of crippling resource scarcity”, “a Malthusian future of shortages of everything from water to food”. Winner Take All appears unbalanced and unconsidered, but above all, when looking at the picture Moyo paints of the future “In the end, we have to hope she’s wrong”.

The mixed impact of international aid and intervention is considered in Theroux's fiction and Moyo's reports. Picture: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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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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