Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on David Foster Wallace, Roberto Calasso's Baudelaire and Nick Barratt's history of London's suburbs.

Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace, the author of Infinite Jest who ended his own life in 2008, claimed that nonfiction is harder to write than fiction “because nonfiction is based in reality – and today's felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex." This posthumous collection of essays on what Wallace described as the “total noise” of contemporary life has been met with mixed reactions. Whilst critics are united in praising Wallace's idiosyncratic talent, opinions differ on whether this collection should have been published this way, if at all.

In a review that raises the issue of what rightly constitutes an author’s oeuvre, Leo Robson writes in this week’s New Statesman: “it is […] a shame that there now exists in book form evidence of Wallace as a practitioner of modest journalistic undertakings”. He considers the collection to be unrepresentative both of the author’s talent, and what he would have wished: “Wallace had shown how he wanted his non-fiction to be treated and it didn’t involve the conversion of emphera in to filler. In other words, if Wallace had survived long enough to preside over a further collection, it is unlikely that he would have looked like this.”

In contrast, Nat Segnit of The Independent, praises a work that, for him, “brims with jewels of insight and expression.” Whilst Robson objects to a prose which, at times, seems to contradict what we know of Wallace’s actual life, Segnit is appreciative of his “digressions and feedback loops of obsessive self-correction”.

David Annand writing in The Telegraph concedes that only some of the collected pieces “belong firmly in Wallace’s first rank” and that, at worst, “there’s something a little desperate about including a throwaway one-pager on Zbigniew Herbert” in this collection. However,  he concluldes that the “the spirit which animates Wallace’s essays" provides ample examples of what Annand calls “David Foster Wallace moments”- “when you get halfway through a sentence and gasp involuntarily, and for a second you feel lucky that there was, at least for a time, someone who could make sense like no other of what it is to be a human in our era.”

La Folie Bauedelaire by Roberto Calasso

The phrase “la folie Baudelaire” has its origin in an article written by Sainte-Beuve, Baudelaire’s contemporary and nemesis, which decried the poet as a drug-addled rascal, unsuitable for admission to the Académie Française. Whilst critics agree that Alastair McEwan's translation of Calasso's extended essay is succesful in evoking some of the idiosyncrasy of the "monstre sacré", they are divided on the effectiveness of the Italian's "ornate" writing style.

Keith Miller of The Telegraph warns that this work is less useful than Baudelaire’s Wikipedia page in communicating the “salient facts” of the 19th- century poet’s life, he writes “this is in no sense a biography”. However, for Miller, what the book lacks in factual detail, it makes up for in its evocation of Baudelaire’s otherness: “This book, sublimely untouched by 20th-century thought […], and imperiously indifferent to any revisionist impulse is essentially content to leave him [...] magnificently marooned on his Asiatic isthmus, the king across the water. “

John Simon in the New York Times finds himself frustrated by the obscurity of Calasso’s prose, he writes: “ the book fluctuates between criticism and biography, which is fine; what is lacking, however, is a clearly conveyed thread that unites all this material.” Though he says that Calsso’s writing can be “quite impressive”, he concludes: “the translation into English seems correct enough”, but that the “obscurantism” could do with translation into “perspicuity”.

Emma Hogan, writing in the Financial Timesagrees that Calasso “sometimes [...] strays too far into the realms of whimsy”. She judges that the author manages to “capture the shifting, overlapping world [of 19th-century Paris]” without getting “overwhelmed by his own material”. The “stories of supporting characters” are celebrated by Hogan, who writes that “such details, combined with [Calasso's] ear for a lyrical phrase, make La Folie Baudelaire a joy to read.”

Greater London: The Story of the Suburbs by Nick Barratt

Nick Barratt’s Greater London charts the development of London’s surrounding land, and the role it has played in the creation of the inner city. Its scale is ambitious, spanning a period from the first century AD up to the present day. John Carey in the Sunday Times confirms that Barratt is successful in “[collecting] facts on a prodigious scale”, managing to capture “London’s spectacular growth.” For Carey, however, Greater London, fails to fulfill its self-professed aim “to celebrate the suburbs”. He argues that Barratt fails to properly represent the human element of the development it charts: "What is missing […] is a sense of how people feel about their suburbs, and what they treasure in suburban life.”

Rebecca Armstrong, writing in the Independent, is more convinced of the breadth of Barratt’s work, which she says performs an “excellent impression of a far-reaching, in-depth yet broadly-based history of London.” Though she concedes that there are parts of the book which would require one to be “enamored of local politics” in order to best appreciate them, in general she findsit to be both informative and entertaining: “You don’t have to be a Londoner to enjoy this heroic tale of people – of bricks and train-tracks – triumphing to the detriment of green space.”

David Foster Wallace pictured in 1997 (Photograph: Getty Images)
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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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