What did the critics really think of "Cuckoo's Calling" (before they knew it was by J K Rowling)?

Actually, they liked it. Galbraith's Cormoran Strike thriller could mark the start of another intensely successful Rowling series.

A reinvigorated J K Rowling has stuck two fingers up to the literary establishment with her first novel under the pseudonym 'Robert Galbraith'. The Cuckoo’s Calling was met with widespread acclaim upon its publication in April before the true identity of the author was revealed by The Sunday Times yesterday. Rowling has spoken of the “pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name” and this pleasure will inevitably be tinged with a sense of vindication, following the mixed reviews received by Rowling’s first foray into literature post-Harry Potter, The Casual Vacancy.

Before Rowling was exposed, publishers Mullholland initially claimed that the book, released in April, was based on Galbraith’s own experience in military service.  The crime thriller follows the elaborately named Cormoran Strike, a wounded Afghan veteran who now pursues a career as a private investigator. Alongside his new secretary Robin Ellacott, he investigates the suspicious suicide of celebrity supermodel Lula Landry.

Geoffrey Wansell of the Mail showers compliments upon Galbraith’s “auspicious debut”. Particular praise is reserved for Cormoran Strike who possesses a “dark fascination”, and is the most interesting fictional detective since “the wonderful Eddie Ginley, nightclub-comedian and wannabe private eye, in director Stephen Frears’ debut film Gumshoe [1971]”. Wansell astutely concluded in May that “there is no sign whatsoever that this is Galbraith’s first novel”.

Publisher’s Weekly was similarly appreciative of Galbraith’s “stellar debut”. It celebrates the novel’s “host of vividly drawn suspects and witnesses” and its “elegant solution”, and is once again, hugely impressed by Strike, “a complex and compelling sleuth.” It concludes that “readers will hope to see a lot more of this memorable sleuthing team".

Teresa Jacobsen of the Library Journal flattered Galbraith with even more inventive adulation, describing the novel as “like a mash-up of Charles Dickens and Penny Vincenzi”. Jacobsen found the novel engrossing, “laden with plenty of twists and distractions”. So too did Marcel Berlins of the Times. He commends the “sparkling dialogue”, and also Galbraith’s critique of celebrity culture.  A “scintillating debut novel set in the world of models, rappers, [and] fashion designers...” manages to produce a “convincing portrayal of the emptiness of wealth and glamour".

The second Cormoran Strike thriller is to be published in 2014. Reviews of the sequel are however set to be skewed by Rowling’s fame. They will surely not demonstrate the same unassuming inspection enjoyed by Galbraith’s first novel.

Rowling's pleaure following Galbraith's success will be intensified following the mixed reviews of "The Casual Vacancy". Photograph: 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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