Inter Alia: Authority, an Anniversary, and Book Reviewing

March 30, 2008 | 1 book mentioned 4 3 min read

In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace imagines a fungus that grows on another fungus; a nuclear reaction fueled by the byproducts of nuclear reactions; and movies whose audiences watch an audience watching them. For this kind of derivative process, he invokes the adjective annular, which the O.E.D. defines as “ringlike” or circular, but which presumably shares some roots with “annul” – to make into nothing. Last week, reading John Freeman’s strange piece in the online Guardian (via TEV), I felt I was in the presence of annular writing: writing about writing about writing. I wade into yet another consideration of the state of book reviewing, then, at the risk of saying nothing about nothing. Nonetheless, I’m going to take this opportunity to advance a couple of propositions I’ve been thinking about lately.

The first is that talk in certain quarters about crises in book reviewing, newspaper journalism, online recommendation systems, and so forth is really an extension of a conversation that’s been going on for at least decades now: one about a more general crisis of authority. Ever since the wheels of modernity set to work on the fixed stars by which we navigate our culture, we’ve been trying to figure out what to look to instead. Technology is only just catching up with us.

Those attached to tradition have always tended to look at the democratization of information warily. For example, I learned in this week’s New Yorker about Walter Lippmann, whose 1922 book Public Opinion argued that the average American “lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct.” According to Eric Alterman, Lippmann proposed that crucial decisions about that world be made by

“intelligence bureaus,” which would be given access to all the information they needed to judge the government’s actions without concerning themselves with democratic preferences or public debate.

This sounds like a nightmare, elitism reduced ad absurdam. Yet the assumption that the dispersal of the authority once held by, say, Edmund Wilson and The New York Times must, ipso facto, produce smarter decision-making doesn’t hold water either. The information superhighway may lead to enlightenment, but it offers exit-ramps to every conceivable variety of cant.

For a while now, I’ve had the nagging feeling that there’s a third way we’ve been neglecting, some kind of solution to the crisis of authority. And then, in the Alterman article, I found another reason to love John Dewey. To wit:

Dewey did not dispute Lippmann’s contention regarding… the public’s vulnerability to manipulation. [But] the foundation of democracy to Dewey was less information than conversation. Members of a democratic society needed to cultivate what the journalism scholar James W. Carey, in describing the debate, called “certain vital habits” of democracy – the ability to discuss, deliberate on, and debate various perspectives in a manner that would move it toward consensus.

This, I think, is why book reviews play a vital, if circumscribed, role in any democracy. I’d also like to think (not coincidentally) that this is the project that we – you and I – are engaged in here at The Millions. Five years into a conversation Max started, I’m consistently impressed by the civility, acuity, and enthusiasm of those who comment on the site (as I invite you to do below). Which leads me to my second proposition: the problem with pre-modern notions of authority has always been that they’re non-consensual. For all its failings, the web is one arena where authority is earned instead of inherited. And so, on the occasion of our fifth anniversary, I’d like to thank you for granting authority, in whatever measure, to us.

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. I agree, except for your point about "the web is one arena where authority is earned instead of inherited." Authority, true authority– at least among literary matters– is always earned in some sense. Edmund Wilson and The New York Times may speak with authority, but they weren't and aren't the only voices speaking on such matters. Wilson, and other great critics of his time, had to compete for authority by showing through their writing that they were a voice that ought to be listened to, something that the internet allows us to do en masse. The greatest change between now and then (from the perspective of someone who's always lived with the internet) is that the voices have gotten smaller.

  2. That's a great point, Michael. My distinction was a bit facile; perhaps there's a better one to be made between singular voices like Wilson's and those (let's say, setting aside our time frame, Judith Miller's) benefiting from an imprimateur burnished over time. In this case, maybe the point is that reputations are made and shattered faster in a digital age. By "smaller" voices, do you mean smaller in terms of their audience, or smaller in terms of their moral and aesthetic ambition? It's the latter, I think, that presents a real challenge nowadays. The temptation (again brought on by speed) to shoot from the hip at every ephemeral skeet that comes through the RSS feed is hard to resist.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.