The Literary Echo Chamber

Haruki Murakami said that “if you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” Much has been made recently of our political echo chambers. How we read an article that we agree with, share with those friends we keep who tend to agree with us, and they in turn share back to us articles with which we agree. Then algorithms on Facebook and other social media sites spew us similar articles with the same viewpoint, thus reinforcing our thoughts. We live in our own post-truth bubbles.

This isn’t my fabrication of an echo chamber. Social scientists Walter Quattrociocchi, Antonio Scala and Cass Sunstein found evidence that people share their favourite narratives or spin on what’s happening, form a group of people who think similarly, and not only that, but resist information or don’t read that with which they don’t agree. Depending on who you believe, this liberal bubble contributed to how Donald Trump was elected President.

But it’s not just political echo chambers. Is this working into the way we view literature too? Are we contained within literary echo chambers? Are we all reading the same books?

There’s a clear correlation across the main newspapers and magazines as to which books are reviewed – I see the same titles again and again. And yet in 2013 the UK published 184,000 new books. The big hitters – David Walliams, Paula Hawkins, JoJo Moyes pull away from the rest of the crowd, selling in their droves. So are all Londoners on the tube thinking the same thoughts as they read the same books? Are they all reading the one being turned into a film, republished with the revised film still cover?

I’m guilty of this too. I can only review the books I’m sent – and as a children’s book reviewer I get sent what the publicists want me to highlight. I do try to request titles where possible, especially niche ones, and I have done this in the past. Also, I don’t get sent the really big sellers – such as David Walliams, as they don’t need my small promotion. And I used to go into my public library and review books that were published years ago and have been slightly forgotten. But now that public library has shrunk to the point of not stocking a sizeable variety (or it has closed completely).

And with newspapers themselves in decline, reviews are squeezed and so fewer risks can be taken by reviewers. And bloggers too tend to navigate within the waters of self-imposed social media echo chambers.

Jonny Geller, literary agent at Curtis Brown, even warned that what’s perceived as a more ‘difficult’ book might not even get published, as large publishers are afraid to take risks, and smaller publishers can’t afford to. In fact publishers would quite like lots of us to be reading the same book – the larger the print run, the smaller the printing costs. So winners of book prizes and books of the year do particularly well – but they tend to be safer books. The cost of entering the top book awards (which give a huge boost to sales) can be prohibitive – as much as £5000 a book if it is shortlisted.

Does this restrict the publishers in what they are choosing to publish altogether? Are we shrinking our narratives at the start – publishing only those titles that might make it into the mainstream, win the awards, and speak to the zeitgeist? How can we change the zeitgeist if we’re not taking risks?

And the buying public – well I’ve spoken before about the shopping algorithm literary echo chamber. Amazon will suggest you titles that like-minded people have bought – in fact if you choose a Costa shortlist title, it suggests the other shortlisted titles, and eventually if you follow the algorithm through, you end up back at the beginning. It’s very hard to get led off on a tangent – unless you go into an independent retailer and ask a knowledgeable member of staff for one of those ‘difficult’ titles.

And then there’s the effect this is having on our confidence in our opinion. Am I wrong if I dislike the book of the year, the winner of the Booker? One of the top ten reasons children give for not reading is that they are worried their opinion will be deemed wrong. It is hard to be the dissenting voice in the crowd. And it’s not just children who worry about having that different opinion from the masses – on more than one occasion I’ve seen a book (and in the genre I like and read) massively promoted, and lauded by critics and bloggers, which I personally think is pretty average, or even worse.

Of course, on the flip side, there’s nothing wrong with a shared narrative. Children love to read the same book so that they can share thoughts with each other, just as the idea of book clubs has such hold because you can eschew your opinion among book-loving people and talk about the same books. Although it’d be interesting to see how many book clubs are composed of like-minded friends, and how many are set up on purpose to have dissenting and different voices and viewpoints.

Some of my personal favourite books are the ones hiding at the back of the bookshop – or the ones you have to specially order because they’re not even stocked on the shelves. A winning picture book for me last year was Flood by Alvaro Villa – one for older children that illuminated in stunning full-bleed illustrations the devastating consequences of a flood on an ordinary family. I was surprised that Alone by DJ Brazier (one of my top books from last year) and The Boy Who Drew the Future by Rhian Ivory didn’t receive more attention in press and bookshops. Or The Song From Somewhere Else by AF Harrold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold, which didn’t seem to garner much attention in the run-up to Christmas last year, and thoroughly deserved to, whereas of course The Midnight Gang by David Walliams with its stymied characterisation and stereotyping, did rather well.  And some authors rely on backlist sales. But I’m falling into the same trap here, because once I’ve read a hidden gem, I want to tell the world about it. I’d like everyone to read it and glean the same joy I did. Echo chamber after echo chamber.

Why not share this article with all your like-minded friends? Or pick up a book you wouldn’t normally read?