~ Posted by Molly Flatt, June 26th 2012
The novelist Hari Kunzru has a concern. And no, it isn't about the death of publishing. Or piracy, or plagiarism, or even the thought of computers writing novels all by themselves. In fact, in his keynote speech this month for “Writing in a Digital Age”, the Literary Consultancy’s two-day conference for aspiring writers, Kunzru eschewed the industry’s usual worries in favour of a paean to the internet’s linguistic and formal possibilities. A longstanding technophile, Kunzru revels in the weird "loops of language" created by translating passages with online software and the "found languages" of corporate jargon, graffiti and text speak. But he did strike one warning note: beware the narrowing of our reading tastes thanks to personalised online feeds.
Earlier this year Ian Leslie wrote a piece for Intelligent Life about the "filter bubble", Eli Pariser's phrase, which said that the internet’s top five—Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, YouTube and Microsoft—were using personalised data filtering to create a "you loop" in which serendipitous discoveries are replaced by commercial prompts designed to keep us inside our comfort zone. There’s been lots of discussion about the political dangers of what Kunzru calls "the myopic self", but there has been little about its impact on how we choose and buy books.
Theoretically, there's never been a better time to be an adventurous reader, but despite all those self-published writers, boutique publishers and specialist booksellers, I don’t think I’m the only one struggling to translate this theory into reality. When it comes to deciding what to read next, I find myself caught between a paralysing ocean of choice and endless recommendations for E.L. James's' "Fifty Shades of Grey". I end up re-reading Dorothy Dunnett’s "King Hereafter"—11th-century Orkney being firmly within my comfort zone.
Of course, we can’t really blame the algorithms. Our reading choices have always been constrained by the natural filter bubble created by our friends, and the pressures of time play as large a role as Google's search engines. So are there any steps we can take to combat the natural "you loop" in our reading tastes?
First, I propose we adopt a thoroughly disruptive stance: "If you enjoyed that, then this is the opposite." If your sister loves the erotic fantasies of E.L. James, then it's time for her to take on the metaphysics of "Gods and Monsters", and give Hari Kunzru a try. I intend to lend my mother Roberto Bolaño’s "2666" and buy my father Marian Keyes's "The Brightest Star in the Sky". And when I’ve finished the remaining 700 pages of my Norse epic, I shall ask my Twitter friends: what shouldn’t I read next?
And why stop there? How about disloyalty cards, where booksellers give us discounts for clocking up an eclectic range of purchases? Or discomfort zones, with a "books we can't stand" display, complete with little handwritten condemnations: so much more inviting than yet another card explaining why "Bleak House" is really rather good. Could there be a pop-up sci-fi corner in a romance authors’ convention or critics reviewing novels that are diametrically opposed in subject matter, style and philosophical outlook, and still liking both? As the season for lazy beach-reading approaches, let us make a stand for the joy of being thoroughly surprised.