Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on John le Carré, Alister McGrath and Granta 123.

A Delicate Truth by John le Carré

A Delicate Truth moves us away from John Le Carré’s previous focus on the post-Soviet capitalist oligarchy to a tale of financial corruption and high-level intrigue on the island of Gibraltar.

Ian Thomson of the Independent is liberal in his praise: "Throughout A Delicate Truth, the tension ratchets up superbly as revelation follows on revelation. Much of what passes these days for literary fiction is mere creative writing; le Carré is one of the great analysts of the contemporary scene, who has a talent to provoke as well as unsettle."

Similarly, to the Observer’s Robert McRum the novel represents a "remarkable return to mid-season form ... he remains as deeply English in nuance, observation and message as ever, and more perceptive about post-'war on terror' Britain than many lesser writers." He also praises the "brilliant climax" and the novel's ability to "pick over the cynicism of the secret state with cold fury".

This view is also shared by Geoffrey Wansell of the Daily Mail: "the bewitching nuances of Le Carré are all there, for this is writing of such quality that – as Robert Harris puts it – it will be read in one hundred years. Le Carré was never a spy- turned-writer; he was a writer who found his canvas in espionage, as Dickens did in other worlds. The two men deserve comparison."

C.S Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath

Alister McGrath, King's College theologian and author of The Dawkins Delusion, returns with a comprehensive portrait of CS Lewis. For Peter Stanford of the Guardian, McGrath’s work is both "more and less" than a biography ... more in that it weaves in a thoughtful, erudite lit-crit appraisal of the writings, plus an unabashed serenade for Lewis's theology. Less in that, though he covers key episodes familiar from other biographies, McGrath picks and chooses the details that suit his purpose of painting Lewis as a modern prophet. Indeed he seems on occasion to lack a biographer's basic curiosity about the minutiae. That, though, is a minor irritant in what is otherwise a very readable study."

Paul Johnson in the Spectator is quick to acknowledge the "genius" of Lewis. A former pupil of his, Johnson was clearly inspired by the man. However, despite acknowledging the "painstaking" lengths McGrath has gone to, he suggests that the book "lacks charm" and "does not make us warm to the subject". Nevertheless, he concludes that McGrath gives us "much food for thought in this dutiful, sound and worthy book".

Despite minor frustration at McGrath’s lack of exploration of Lewis’s time in the trenches, the Telegraph’s Phillip Womack is extremely positive: "This is a finely balanced book, which allows Lewis’s works to speak for themselves without drawing crude parallels with his life, something that Lewis himself would have admired. And it leaves the reader marvelling at the joy and wonder that inhabit the Narnia books: that enchanted glimpse into something beautiful and eternal."

Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4, edited by John Freeman

Phillip Hensher, writing in the Spectator, laments the absence from the latest Granta list of best of young British novelists of a number of established authors such as Jon McGregor. Moreover, he notes the failure to provide a "flavour of a generation - the sort of thing that the previous lists possessed in spades".

Writing in the Telegraph, Anthony Cummins is similarly critical: "Freeman’s arguments for these and other choices lack the clarity with which he recalls where and what the panel ate as they judged." Nevertheless he praises the ability of the various writers to find "fresh combinations of characters and situations, or [to] cast a torch into worlds that lie hidden in plain sight; more 19th century than 21st".

For the Observer’s Tim Adams, the collection represents key trends in contemporary fiction: "the dominant tone is of poignant uprootedness, anxious displacement".

John Le Carré's latest work is a "return to mid-season form" (Photo by Terry Fincher/Express/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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