A new, more positive, biography of poet Philip Larkin has been published Photograph: Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
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Reviews round-up | 2 September

The critics’ verdicts on David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, Will Self’s Shark, and a new biography of Philip Larkin by James Booth.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks, a book David Mitchell has described as his “mid-life crisis novel,” is the story of a 1980s teenager who gets entagled in a conspiracy threatening the structure of time. The New Statesman’s Olivia Laing admires Mitchell’s ability to recreate the past: “Mitchell has a flair for period furniture, for the loving accumulation of details that make the near as well as distant past luminous,” she writes. However, she is less convinced by the overall structure of the book. “It has its emotional charge defused by the author’s decision to wrestle it into an increasingly irritating edifice of plot.”

The Times’ Melissa Katsoulis is more enthusiastic, writing, “In the wrong hands, magical storytelling like this would make you cringe. But in Mitchell’s it thrills. He is funny, hip and full of life.” She even goes so far as to start making predictions about literary prizes: “This beautiful explosion of adventurous ideas may well take him, finally, beyond the Booker shortlist.”

Louise Jury in the Independent suggests that not every aspect of Mitchell’s novel will be found universally appealing: “for sci-fi fantasists, the imaginary world Mitchell creates might be a thing of wonder, a Dungeons and Dragons for literate grown-ups. For others, I suspect the flesh and blood anguish of a long life lived well against the odds will prove the greater pleasure.” Overall, however, she is positive about the book, calling Mitchell a “consummate craftsman” for his ability to weave together different stories.

Shark by Will Self

Will Self’s eleventh novel is a prequel in narrative, though sequel in publication date, to Umbrella, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2012. The New Statesman’s Mark Lawson praises Self for “saving the life of the hard reward that rewards the attention demanded,” even if he is a little hesitant about the density of the prose: “the ideal reader of Shark might be someone who doesn’t have a job but does have insomnia and a catheter. Even the most diligent Self fan, when confronted with such density of typography and exposition, must sometimes think: give us a break.”

The Daily Telegraph’s Jon Day is similarly full of admiration for Shark: “not only is this a truly wonderful novel, it also makes you want to revisit his previous work and read it with a keener eye.” He also suggests that Self has improved on what he began in Umbrella: “where Umbrella’s tricksiness sometimes made it feel like a work of historical fiction, in Shark the language feels urgent and necessary. What Self aired in Umbrella has hardened into a style.”

The highest praise comes from the Guardian, in which Stuart Kelly writes, “Shark confirms that Self is the most daring and delightful novelist of his generation . . . I have every expectation that when this trilogy does conclude, it will be recognised as the most remorseless vivisection and plangent evocation of our sad, silly, solemn and strange last century.”

Philip Larkin: Life, Art, and Love by James Booth

James Booth's new biography of Philip Larkin gives a more positive version of the famous poet than is customary. The Telegraph’s Michael Deacon points out that “although Booth has carried out his own interviews and draws on previously unpublished letters, his biography contains no game-changing revelations,” and as such Booth’s positive presentation of Larkin relies on reinterpreting the existing evidence. “Sometimes, it works,” Deacon writes. Other attempts, however, are “not very convincing.”

The Observer’s Rachel Cooke is similarly mixed in her praise. Booth is said to be “unfair to Larkin’s lovers, women he apparently regards as the poet’s ‘creation’.” He also “overstate[s] the Larkin-haters’ case, the better that he might ride to the rescue.” All the same, “there is compensation in the form of his lengthy readings of the poems, which are close and thoughtful if not exactly exhilarating, and in his use of Larkin’s letters, which remind the reader again and again what a fantastic writer the poet was, even in casual mode.”

In the Spectator, on the other hand, Peter J. Conradi is much more positive, calling Booth’s biography “superb.” Conradi also suggests the book is superior to Motion’s: “Booth’s psychology is subtler than Motion’s and more convincing. His achievement is to paint a satisfying and believably complex picture . . . As for Larkin the misogynist, it is mysterious how the character painted by Motion could have had any love life at all, let alone a highly complex and fulfilling one.”

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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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