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Swing Time is a fun novel, but the steps are a little too complex

Zadie Smith's new novel is enjoyable but tries to do too much. Next time, she should slow down, lean back and try out a waltz.

Nobody would call Zadie Smith a minimalist. White Teeth was a 560-page comic epic, perfectly in tune with the sensory overload of 1990s multicultural London. My favourite, On Beauty, was her most tightly focused, but more recently she returned to dazzling readers in NW, an at times bewildering kaleidoscope of characters and forms.

Her books make me think of those living rooms with swirly wallpaper, a flowery sofa and ornaments on every surface (please note: I like those rooms). They are full of life, unafraid of mess, teetering on the edge of being too much. Smith has acknowledged something similar – she once described White Teeth as “the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired, tap-dancing ten-year-old”. That quotation came back to me as I read Swing Time, partly because it features tap-dancing children, but also because, although its author is now a formidable and mature artist, that girl hasn’t entirely gone away.

At the centre of this novel is the friendship between our narrator and Tracey, two girls from north London who dream of ­becoming dancers. They have many things in common: problematic noses, council-flat homes, nut-brown skin, an obsession with Fred and Ginger, a taste for Angel Delight. A casual observer might give them roughly equal life chances. Yet the differences are evident from the beginning and, over time, they start to count. Tracey has frilly skirts and bows in her hair. Her mum, who is “white, obese, afflicted with acne” and who aspires only to “get on the disability”, buys her daughter every toy under the sun and feeds her on Findus Crispy Pancakes. Her wrong ’un father, who Tracey wishfully insists is a backing dancer for Michael Jackson, casts a sinister shadow over her life.

Our narrator, on the other hand, has a mother who looks like Nefertiti, wears espadrilles and takes Open University courses in sociology and politics (though no one can work out why). On the estate, she is uniquely confident in standing up to authority, berating the teachers on parents’ evening, digging illegal vegetable beds in the council-owned lawn and getting her husband to heave a pottery wheel up the stairs so the girls have something to do other than watch cartoons and soap operas. This father will seem familiar to readers of Smith’s previous books: a humble and reliable white man, who is both in awe of his more ambitious, exotic wife and completely baffled by her.

True to form, Smith evokes the significance of these relatively small social differences wonderfully well; the scene with the pottery wheel, in particular, is hilarious (as the mother harps on about Augusta Savage, Tracey fashions her rustic “vase” into a long, brown penis). These enjoyable opening chapters set the scene for an exploration – reminiscent of Elena Ferrante, though feistier and funnier – of the relationship between the two girls as they grow up and venture out into the world.

Then something odd happens. Rather than keeping her focus on their friendship, Smith gets distracted by a new storyline. Our now grown-up narrator gets a job working for a major-league pop star, Aimee, who wants to open a school in Africa. In the second half of the book, set largely in Africa, Tracey sinks almost completely into the shadows, reappearing only to help tie up certain elements of the plot.

Smith is skilled at developing characters and relationships across a range of cultures, and the Africa sections here are no exception. It’s understandable that after writing three novels set in north London, she might feel sick of the place and want to get out. On another level, she has set out to juxtapose the narrator’s guilt-riddled relationship with Tracey, whom she has left behind, with larger structural questions about the relationship between the world’s poorest and the super-rich.

It’s too much of a stretch, even for Smith. Those questions about guilt, inequality and obligation would have arisen more naturally and worked more effectively had she kept faith with her original characters. None of this is helped by the distraction of Aimee, who is almost explicitly Madonna and yet not Madonna (she is Australian). Try as I might, I couldn’t separate her from Madonna in my mind, or feel that she was a character in her own right.

I admire Zadie Smith’s ambition, her willingness to try new things and let it all hang out. So I enjoyed Swing Time, in the way I’d enjoy a crazy tap dance. But next time she should slow down, lean back and try out a waltz.

Zadie Smith appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival in conversation with the NS culture editor, Tom Gatti, on 22 November

Swing Time by Zadie Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton (453pp, £18.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse

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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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