March 15, 2019

"Of course, I don’t believe that Alex and Wendy exist. But as a cultural journalist, as a book critic, I’ve been put on notice that I work for them."

Writes Christian Lorentzen, who — email from Harpers tells me — was "New York magazine’s lead book critic until last fall, when the magazine told him that his contract would not be renewed, because what he did had 'little value.'" Lorentzen's essay — "Like This or Die/The fate of the book review in the age of the algorithm" — begins with this amusement envisioning of the nonexistent Alex and Wendy:
Alex and Wendy love culture. It’s how they spend their free time. It’s what they talk about at dinner parties. When they go jogging or to the gym, they listen to podcasts on their phones. On Sunday nights they watch their favorite new shows. They go to the movies sometimes, but they were bummed out when ­MoviePass went south, so now they mostly stream things. They belong to book clubs that meet every couple of weeks. Alex and Wendy work hard at their jobs, but they always have a bit of time to check their feeds at work. What’s in their feeds? Their feeds tell them about culture. Their feeds are a form of comfort. Their feeds explain things to them that they already understand. Their feeds tell them that everyone else is watching, reading, listening to the same things. Their feeds tell them about the people who make their culture, people who aren’t so different from them, just maybe a bit more glistening. Alex and Wendy’s feeds assure them that they aren’t lonely. Their feeds give them permission to like what they already like. Their feeds let them know that their culture is winning.

Alex and Wendy believe in the algorithm. It’s the force that organizes their feeds, arranges their queues, and tells them that if they liked this song, video, or book, they might like that one too. They never have to think about the algorithm, and their feeds offer a kind of protection. Alex hates to waste his time. His time is so precious. It makes Wendy feel sad when she reads a book she doesn’t love. She might have read one of the books her friends loved. If their feeds lead them astray, Alex and Wendy adjust them. There’s only so much time, and when they have kids, there’ll be even less time. Alex and Wendy aren’t snobs. They don’t need to be told what not to like. They’d rather not know about it.... The negative opinion wastes Alex and Wendy’s time.

63 comments:

mccullough said...

A+

joshbraid said...

Growing up is such hard work! Just tell me who I am.

rcocean said...

Funny, book reviewers aren't known for making people "uncomfortable". Usually, they just flack for the Publishing industry and attack anything they think is too "right-wing".

rcocean said...

And usually when elite cultural critics push something that's "edgy" and "different" it turns out to be the same old left-wing crap in a new envelope.

Ken B said...

Wow. I expected I would be mocking this guy. I am not. This is brilliant writing. It is funny, insightful, convincing, and looks effortless.
Bravo.

rhhardin said...

Little value means it's a product nobody wants at the price.

It's not made better by trying to shame the nonbuyers.

Lit crit that they're interested in might do it. Say start by being jaw-droppingly accurate.

Nonapod said...

The practice of recapping spread to ever more venues, including the New York Times, and to ever less sophisticated programs. The journalists who engaged in it seemed to have finally found a way to combine their two favorite activities—watching television and doing their homework. That the television shows were perfectly comprehensible and didn’t require much actual exegesis didn’t matter, because people clicked anyway.

I think this Christian Lorentzen person is running down recaps a bit too much. I well written recap of a TV episode can occasionally pick up something you may have missed or it may put something into context more clearly, especially if it links something back to an earlier episode.

When I watch a show through a streaming service I will often skip through parts that I find extraneous, tedious, or uninteresting. For example I may skip over a long drawn out sex scene or a diegetic recap. The problem with doing that of course is that sometimes they'll be a plot point that'll be revealed within that sort of scene. So a written recap can reveal what I missed.

Jess said...

Algorithms are great, but they can't write good poetry, or determine if I like the taste with the tiny amount of additional cinnamon.

rhhardin said...

I'm grateful for movie recommendations from Amazon. They're fairly accurate, as shown by getting good movies at the start and now of very declining quality after I've bought all the good ones. That is, the good ones are recommended right away.

Some recent ones are excellent, just not happening with very high probability.

(In Harmony, Cicile de France, being an example; In a Day, Lorraine Pilkington, being another. The former in French with English subtitles)

rehajm said...

This is brilliant writing. It is funny, insightful, convincing, and looks effortless.

Ya. Good writing. Now do book critics.

Movie critics have been done. Probably just the same.

rhhardin said...

I like the wikipedia plot explanations for some of the movies that make no sense. What happened? You can find out.

rcocean said...

Now, that I've read more of the article, all i can do is agree: A+

Loved this quote, which gets it right.

"Book coverage is not only meager but shockingly mediocre. The pabulum that passes for most reviews is an insult to the intelligence of most readers. One is tempted to say, perversely, that its disappearance from the pages of America’s newspapers is arguably cause for celebration."

MayBee said...

My Audible algorithm keeps telling me I would enjoy the memoir of Michelle Obama. Hahahahaha! Why?

Henry said...

The negative opinion wastes Alex and Wendy’s time.

Great arrow to the heart of the matter.

But I think he misses something economic. The streaming world makes previewing incredibly cost-free.

In the old days, if you wanted to get the sense of a movie, you might see a television commercial, but otherwise you had to go to the cinema to watch a different movie that showed you a preview of the movie you might want to see. You had to spend time and money to see a preview.

If you wanted to try out a new band, you had to borrow a record or CD or download a MP3. Or you had to spend a lot of time listening to the radio or watching MTV. Now you just search for the band and give them a listen. Maybe the algorithm suggests the band, but you don't need a critic to try them out.

Michael K said...

The Ruth Bader Ginsburg collar ad told me a lot right off the bat,

Jupiter said...

"Alex and Wendy believe in the algorithm."

"Everyone needs to believe in something. I believe I'll have a drink."

Mike Sylwester said...

A lot of commenters' avatars are not showing today.

rehajm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Sylwester said...

I think that the avatars based on Blogger are not showing.

rehajm said...

My Audible algorithm keeps telling me I would enjoy the memoir of Michelle Obama

Can you bribe an algorithm?

Unknown said...

Get woke, go broke. Why would book reviews that are politically biased be of use.

Deep State Reformer said...

SWPL angst is the funniest shit. No one was reading this guy's work and so they dropped him. Apparently he thinks they should keep him on because he speaks "truth to power" or some such reason. They may love you or they may hate you, but you still have to have a readership bro.


And as for his complaint about Wendy's reading list, time to read is precious and hard copy books are expensive, and so lousy writing is an indulgence to be avoided. Unlike a professional reviewer she has no duty to take through the dregs, that is his job.

gilbar said...

rehajm said... Can you bribe an algorithm?

you can Sure As HELL bribe a software firm, Happens Every Day

William said...

Amazon's algorithm is better than that of Neflix. They keep pointing me to offbeat shows that I never heard of. Also, if you develop an enthusiasm for a certain actor you can work your way through their body of work.

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PM said...

Nail hammered with single stroke.

Christy said...

what he did had 'little value.'
Means no one was clicking on his pieces.

I keep getting Michelle Obama in my recommendation list, too. Makes me discount the algorithm. Also makes me believe Big Data is trying to manipulate me just like all the tin hats keep saying.

Back in the day I read and followed the recommendations of a few critics whose tastes meshed with mine. Increasingly, however, their militant PC attitudes made them oblivious to material that simply didn't work.

Darrell said...

What's with Google avatars NOT APPEARING? (It's showing in my Gmail account.) I have the same avatar on Blogger and Gravatar, too, but why would Google use those?

Fernandinande said...

Now, Alex, he is a banker,
And Wendy, she is a clerk.
And the both of them are saving up their money...
Then they come home from work.

Other than that, I don't "get it".

Richard Dolan said...

His article kept my attention to the end, but truth be told, his lament that marketing and conformism (they go together easily) rule the roost in the business of books and book reviews could have been written a hundred years ago. In fact, it was, more of less. Matthew Arnold comes to mind, with his emphasis on achieving the heights of truth and seriousness as the object of literature, and his disdain for the philistines wallowing in pop culture's embrace of mediocrity and materialism.

Ann Althouse said...

"A lot of commenters' avatars are not showing today."

I know Google is getting rid of Google+.

If my avatar shows, then Google avatars work, just not maybe Google+. Sometimes plus is minus.

rcocean said...

I agree that things have always been bad in the book business, what's really happened is that novels and literature were taken over by SJW's and the Big publishers and they drove out anything and anybody that wasn't part of their narrow world or had a *truly* different viewpoint. People forget that all these people attacked Tom Wolfe when he first started writing novels because it wasn't "True Literature".

Now, even that small elite is no longer reading literature. I've noticed at my library almost all the books ABOUT Literature, the biographies of authors and the critical analyses have been taken off the shelves. When I asked why, the Librarian said "No one was reading them". All the people who used to write/read Literature Criticism, now watch TV and movies.

Henry said...

I keep getting Michelle Obama in my recommendation list, too.

My Kindle reader organizes all recommendations in pretty simple format:

"Trending this month" -- Generally useless.
"Most read non-fiction books on Amazon charts" -- Useless. Hi, Michele.
"New releases in Kindle store" -- Comically useless. Romance! Crime!
"More like The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai" -- Intriguing, worth pursuing.
"Recommended for you in Prime reading" -- Hit and miss. Occasionally bemusing.
"Best sellers in Kindle store" -- Useless.
"Based on your reading" -- Better than recommended!

tim maguire said...

Since my daughter is under 13, she can't have her own account. So she uses mine.

So the algorithm keeps recommending crap. It thinks I have awful taste when really I just have a daughter.

Francisco D said...

Their feeds give them permission to like what they already like. Their feeds let them know that their culture is winning.

The writer has done an excellent job of capturing the mindset of pseudo-intellectual wannabe elites. True intellectuals do not need such affirmation. They are independent thinkers.

My initial reaction to this couple was extremely negative because they reminded me of a few pretentious, shallow narcissists that have been in my life.

Molly said...

(eaglebeak)

All the jobs that have to do with reading and writing seem to be flapping out to sea. As an editor, I can report that even the top book publishers skimp on editing, fact-checking, proof-reading, etc., so naturally NY Mag is going to skimp on lit crit.

This doesn't mean that people aren't reading (although that could be true, but I have no evidence for it), but it does suggest that readers don't care a lot about grammar, the geometry of language, or euphony. So perhaps they don't read for pleasure much any more, or at least not for the pleasure of words and phrases.

Also, of course, like anything else, lit crit is unreliable. For example, Leo Tolstoy hated Shakespeare. Go figure.

Sam L. said...

SAD.

Freeman Hunt said...

Amazon has no idea what I like. Considering how much data the company has on me and what I've bought over many, many years, I find that incredible.

rehajm said...

Word of warning: If you use your Netflix login at your mother in law's house make sure you log out or at least assign said mother law her own profile, lest your mother in law's viewing habits become intwined with your own recommendations. Better still- warn your mother in law Netflix tracks viewing habits.

Yes, there is Japanese lesbian tentacle porn on Netflix.

Two-eyed Jack said...

How many critics does America need? The industry used to pay beginners at every outlet to write up books and movies, but most people dropped the gig and moved on. A few actually had something to say and persisted, but some just turned into quote generators, adding a couple of words, an elipsis and a byline to the display ads that paid the bills at the paper or magazine.

mccullough said...

I wonder how much of the books, movies/film, music criticism is just going to be by independent individuals at a website.

I really liked Althouse son’s critique last week of the Soundgarden and NIN album’s on their 25th anniversary.

I’d pay a few bucks a month for quality music reviews like that.

Caligula said...

I tend to think of newspaper book reviews as "Politbook."

Because what seems to attract a positive review is rarely whether the novel or non-fiction work is actually well done and therefore worth reading, but whether its narrative is about something that's politically trendy.

Thus, a novel with a transgender protagonist is practically guaranteed positive coverage by most newspaper book reviewers. Thus, it follows that an algorithm can hardly do worse, as at least the algorithm uses some data about the individual reader, whereas the reviewer remains bound by whatever is currently trendy.

gadfly said...

"Free Time" is what occurs to permit dinner party attendance; go jogging or to the gym; listen to podcasts; watch favorite shows; go to the movies or stream things; and attendance at frequent book club meetings, but strikingly, includes cheating employers by frequenting social media on the internet while being paid.

So virtually everything, by and large, can become "free time" through free thought. Is free thought cultural or personal? Methinks it to be personal.

Brian McKim and/or Traci Skene said...

Algorithms? We have our cultural menu forced upon us the old-fashioned way: We listen to NPR and then make seemingly independent decisions to buy and read the books they tell us to buy and read!

SDaly said...

I'm starting to listen to opera. Any recommendations?

gadfly said...

In the old days, when the likes of Romance writers wanted to get a novel published, publishing houses and yea, even brokers who fronted them, required certain writing rules to be followed - and in doing so, the beginnings of algorithms popped up. Now, in light of self-publishing shortcut through Kindle, computers have been used to analyze word usages and styles that have become best sellers to produce an important algorithm. Has writing become just another sing-along video?

Anthony said...

Amazon Prime has given me good recommendations on documentaries. I found one on the Amazing Randi that was excellent.

Pandora's is okay, although I have learned to be careful "Liking" too many things because then it latches onto those and those only.

Funny story: When I first started on Pandora when it was pretty new, I made a station of solo piano stuff. So I put in George Winston, Michael Jones, etc., as the base artists. No problem, right? Well, it decided that Jerry Lee Lewis was similar. Because, piano, I guess.

Sebastian said...

"If you wanted to try out a new band, you had to borrow a record or CD or download a MP3."

That's so, I don't know, 90s. Once upon a time, I believe, people had to go to a store and listen to, you know, records there. LPs and stuff.

Henry said...

Sebastian said...
That's so, I don't know, 90s.

I didn't want to go toooo dinosaur.

Gregg said...

Alex and Wendy seem a lot like William Macy and Felicity Huffman.

Churchy LaFemme: said...

I'm starting to listen to opera. Any recommendations?

Wagner's music is better than it sounds.

Henry said...

tim maguire wrote...
So the algorithm keeps recommending crap. It thinks I have awful taste when really I just have a daughter.

Funny. For me it's my son. Because of him, Amazon thinks I love Game of Thrones.

Churchy LaFemme: said...

Amazon's book recommendations have put me onto stuff I never would have found. Admittedly at around $2.99 a pop, there's not a lot of purchase resistance to overcome.

Richard Dolan said...

"I'm starting to listen to opera. Any recommendations?"

Move to NYC and subscribe to the Met. Or at least try their HD broadcasts in movie theaters. If that's too much, just start with the most performed -- Boheme, Traviata, Madama B -- and move on from there.

tim in vermont said...

Magazine book reviewers killed themselves when they became a kind of political officer whose job was to keep the sheep in the fold. Give me Amazon.

Michael K said...

I'm starting to listen to opera. Any recommendations?

I avoid the "modern" ones likes "Nixon in China."

Carmen and La Boheme are safe.

Watch for Garanca.

Churchy LaFemme: said...

All the opera you need.

tim in vermont said...

Tl;dr people are listening to someone else and not me!

Freeman Hunt said...

"Or at least try their HD broadcasts in movie theaters."

Even my kids like this. It should be advertised more. Most people don't even know these showings are available.

rcocean said...

I avoid the "modern" ones likes "Nixon in China."

Oh, God that was terrible! The only opera i ever walked out on. After that I stuck to about 25 or so favorites. Mostly Beethoven, Mozart, Rossini, Bizet, Wagner, and Verdi, Puccini. My wife is the big opera fan, but I'll come along its by those guys. Sorry, my taste in opera is very boring.

gg6 said...

There's something certainly very interesting here but it specific point-essence - if it actually has one - is pretty difficult to discern in this way less than clear rhetoric. So maybe the point is - those who can't write, teach/criticize?...Or, is this perhaps the screenplay draft for the tragedy where the critic suddenly discovers his reader-audience-employer are all idiots? Et tu?

wildswan said...

"gg6 said...
There's something certainly very interesting here but it specific point-essence - if it actually has one - is pretty difficult to discern in this way less than clear rhetoric."

I thought the same but at the very end, suddenly, the author introduces a new Alex and Wendy who read, look at art and listen to music according to some inner schedule of their own and always will and such people, the author is saying, will always exist. At present these people have no forum (which is the point of the entire preceding article.) But since this literate group of reader/listeners can access any book (or piece of music) its members aren't forced into conformity by bookstores or book reviews (or availability of CD's or radio playlists), he finishes

Ultimately, I believe this group will evolve a set of standards. But at the moment everyone is reading different books (listening to different music) at different times - even if they are same books (music) over time. So how could standards evolve?

It's my opinion that people will conclude that you get more out books and music if you have read them or listened to them at least once as a sequence in time. When and if that happens, then people could discuss them again because you could discuss the effect of the sequence. What came before Shakespeare, what came after, why? That discussion would hold no matter when you came into the discussion.

For instance - that person asking about opera, why not start with early and work forward? Yet ... why not start with most fun, expand out and then go back and see the development as well as enjoy?

Focko Smitherman said...

It's always been tough for book critics. Maybe the funniest thing Orwell (who, to the surprise of many of his readers, was not a funny guy) ever wrote: "Confessions of a book reviewer."