Michael Lewis’s high-speed journalism

By Felix Salmon
April 7, 2014

My full review of Flash Boys is now up at Slate. Tl;dr: he’s right for the wrong reasons. HFT is a bad thing, but not because it rips off small investors.

There’s a separate question worth asking, though: why is this book weaker than Lewis’s other books?

Partly, it’s because Lewis took a bet on the unknown. Lewis tells stories by focusing on individuals, and he clearly felt that he hit the jackpot when he found Brad Katsuyama, the founder of IEX. Katsuyama would in any case have been a compelling choice as the person through whom to explain HFT. But in this case Lewis managed to go one better: he caught Katsuyama at a very auspicious time, which meant that he could actually follow him, in person, through the launch of his new company. As a result, Lewis found himself unable to control the arc of his story: from the point of view of the narrative, Flash Boys was going to go wherever IEX went, even if IEX’s future was very unclear at deadline.

And while first-person access should in principle make the book better, because Lewis can add the kind of details which he can never find by talking to participants ex post, in practice, it often doesn’t. Rather, it means that Lewis seemingly felt compelled to, well, add the kind of details which he could never find by talking to participants ex post:

Don leaned with his back against the window, along with Ronan, Schwall, and Rob Park, while Brad stood in front of the whiteboard and took a whiteboard marker out of a bin…

Schwall looked over the desks and shouted, “Whose phone is that?”

“Sorry,” someone said, and the ringing stopped.

This isn’t novelistic color, it’s more akin to the famous drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost. When Michael Lewis knows exactly what story he wants to tell, he can talk to people and piece it together like no one else in the business. But in this case, Lewis chose the story before he knew how it was going to end, and so he ends up writing what he saw. Which is sometimes important, and sometimes isn’t. It’s a common problem when a journalist gets exclusive access to something: just because you’re the only person to witness something, doesn’t mean it’s particularly worth witnessing.

To make matters worse, Lewis felt the need to bulk up the book by dropping in, more or less verbatim, his entire Vanity Fair article on Sergei Aleynikov. That story was excellent: one of the best things that Lewis has written, which is a very high bar. But its narrative doesn’t fit with that of Brad Katsuyama; in some ways, the two are diametrically opposed. Aleynikov should probably have appeared in the book somehow, as an example of the way in which the big banks were thrown in panic by the rise of HFT. But that would have required Lewis writing the Aleynikov story all over again, a second time around — when the first time was already such a success. So he simply did a copy-and-paste job, which is not what his bigger story really required.

Overall, a lot of the weaknesses with this book are ironically the same as the weaknesses with the stock market: it’s just too fast. With a bit more time and care, Lewis could have broadened his story a bit, put Aleynikov into better context, and explained the real dangers of HFT rather than just the “you’re being ripped off” hyperbole. He could also have avoided some silly mistakes: Secaucus is west of Weekhawken, for instance, not east.

Then again, maybe Flash Boys is a sign of where book publishing is going. It will probably be read more on electronic devices than in print; it will probably be read mostly in the next few weeks, and become dated very quickly. It’s an event; it’s highly salient right now, but it doesn’t have the legs that, say, Liar’s Poker does. Books used to be objects with permanence; as they become increasingly electronic, they can start moving towards the more disposable model of, say, Vanity Fair style magazine journalism.

Which makes possible what you might call the Reputation Arbitrage. The Newsweek cover story on Satoshi Nakamoto got enormous amounts of attention just because it was a Newsweek cover story, appearing, in print, on the front page of a physical magazine with a storied brand. If exactly the same story had appeared on a lesser-known website, it would have caused much less of a fuss. Similarly, Flash Boys is getting enormous amounts of attention just because it is a book by Michael Lewis. If he had simply written the NYT Magazine story, without a book behind it, the article would still have been shared a lot, but I don’t think we would have seen the same response from, say, US law enforcement.

In the digital age, media are converging faster than people think they are. Certain formats — the magazine cover, the hardback book — retain a certain amount of vestigial reputational capital, which can cause people to write about them more than maybe they should. If only the same amount of attention had been paid to, say, Matt Taibbi’s scoop about SEC document-shredding. That is something to really get angry about.

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