As I read Flash Boys (Norton, 2014), I find myself asking, ‘Can I trust Michael Lewis? Is he a reliable reporter?’ Uncomfortable questions, those, when posed of someone whose writing, starting with Liars Poker (1989), I’ve admired.
Two-thirds through Flash Boys I’d hazard a ‘yes’. But with unforced errors, he and his publisher give me reasons to hesitate about this exposé of ‘high frequency trading’ (HFT) and the transformation of America’s equity markets into ‘dark pools’.
Author and publisher omit or slight the means – mostly mechanical, but some creative – that confer at least an appearance of credibility on a work of non-fiction. In Flash Boys, among the absent or virtually absent are clear titles, a bibliography, an index, sourcing (foot/endnotes), and acknowledgements of others’ contributions to the author’s work.
Maybe this looks like inside baseball – Moneyball (2003) – stuff. It’s not in any case, but it’s especially not when a writer of Lewis’s standing tells a story as seemingly explosive as this one.
Start with the title. Flash Boys. What’s it mean? To whom does it refer?
In the UK and its former colonies whose English separated later than American, ‘flash boys’ would refer to vulgar, ostentatious men. In Australia, Melburnians refer to ‘flash Sydney’. Often the adjective’s context imputes dishonesty.
Nothing in the text hints Michael Lewis had this meaning in mind. Or did he? HFT, after all, is called ‘flash trading’. He certainly views it as dishonest, if it isn’t criminal. But its nature is precisely opposite from ostentation. It lies concealed. Its practitioners avoid hedge-fund-manager visibility.
In a book that elaborately defines arcane financial phrases, ‘flash boys’ isn’t explained. On this, you’ll have to take my word unless you read it.
For Flash Boys has no index.
One should always be suspicious of books without indexes or with half-assed ones, like Whitey Bulger by Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy which indexes place names. With Flash Boys, only your annotations will allow you to cross reference the 274 pages of text.
Lewis and W.W. Norton have given us, beaconless, a dark pool of prose about dark pools for securities.
Flash Boys went to the top of my reading list after I read John Lanchester’s London Review of Books essay, ‘Scalpers Inc.’ (June 5, 2014).
His enthusiastic review not illogically uses ‘flash boys’ to refer to flash traders. But Lewis’s publisher, W.W. Norton, uses it very differently on its author website:
Flash Boys is about a small group of Wall Street guys [PDK: yech!] who figure out that the U.S. stock market has been rigged for the benefit of insiders and that, post-financial crisis, the markets have become not more free but less, and more controlled by the big Wall Street banks. Working at different firms, they come to this realization separately; but after they discover one another, the flash boys band together and set out to reform the financial markets. This they do by creating an exchange in which high-frequency trading – source of the most intractable problems – will have no advantage whatsoever.
If the title is counter-intuitive and John Lanchester isn’t clear to whom it refers, there’s something wrong here. In ‘Money Talks’ in the August 4 New Yorker, Lanchester argues:
The language of money is a powerful tool, and it is also a tool of power. Incomprehension is a form of consent. If we allow ourselves not to understand this language, we are signing off on the way the world works today—in particular, we are signing off on the prospect of an ever-widening gap between the rich and everyone else, a world in which everything about your life is determined by the accident of who your parents are.
Financial writers who baffle even their peers as to who they’re inveighing against abuse their power.
In keeping with the title’s confusion, there’s Lewis’s epigraph: ‘A man got to have a code –Omar Little’. Lewis doesn’t bound ‘Omar Little’ with quotation marks to signal he’s a character in a TV series, The Wire, that ended in 2008, six years before Flash Boys’ pub date. Nor does Lewis make anything of the quotation later – as far as I’ve read.
A memorable character, Omar was, during The Wire’s five year run, but how many now recall him as the shotgun-wielding predator on the drug trade, a killer driven by his appalling yet appealing moral code? Everyone in Flash Boys has code and some a code. As with Omar Little’s, it’s all in how the computer code or the moral code is applied.
In his long, telling review of Flash Boys for Slate (April 7, 2014), Felix Salmon makes a similar point about Lewis’s epigraph. Salmon also derides, impliedly, the book’s American subtitle, ‘A Wall Street Revolt’. For it’s difficult to see a ‘revolt’ in Lewis’s villains apparently legal gaming of the system or in his heroes counterattack. Who is either group revolting against?
Even more mystifying is Flash Boys UK subtitle: ‘Cracking the Money Code’. Now it’s clear the book is not about an ‘Omar Little’-type code. But ‘Money Code’? That’s very hard to aline with the story in Flash Boys, and makes it hard to suppose Lewis didn’t mean ‘flash’ in its Anglo-Australian sense.
So, Lewis and W.W. Norton present us with an ambiguous, maybe baffling, title and subtitles. The chapter titles, which should give readers a running outline of the argument, are similarly opaque.
In the New York Times for August 5, Alexandra Alter surveyed the criticism of Rick Perlstein’s new volume on American conservative politics, ‘Reagan Book Sets off Debate’. Among the criticisms – some serious, some not – she reports:
The debate about Mr. Perlstein’s book also calls into question the growing practice of shifting endnotes out of print books and onto the web. In what Mr. Perlstein calls “a publishing innovation,” readers of “The Invisible Bridge” are directed to a trove of digital citations on Mr. Perlstein’s website.
He and his publisher [Vintage] said they moved the endnotes online not just to save money – the notes would have made the hardcover edition unwieldy and expensive at 1,000-plus pages – but also to make his research more transparent by providing links to the books, newspaper clippings and news reports that Mr. Perlstein drew on. “I want to expand this idea of history as a collective enterprise,” he said. “My notion is that people will read this book with their iPhones open.”
A thoroughly bad idea, this. Footnotes/endnotes are supposed to tell the reader quickly what the author has relied upon and let him/her judge its sufficiency.
Even with your iPhone at the ready, you can’t use Flash Boys’s notes since there aren’t any either in the book or on Lewis’s Norton website. He footnotes just two general references to books in its first 184 pages. Nor does Lewis offer a bibliography of sources. So, again, checking Lewis’s work is difficult, nearly impossible.
Take the story of Sergey Aleynikov to which Lewis devotes a chapter (pp. 128-150). He quotes Aleynikov repeatedly, but he doesn’t hint at the sources for the quotations. He leaves ambiguous whether he ever spoke with Aleynikov. The acknowledgments don’t include one to Aleynikov, but do recognise that ‘Jaime Lalinde helped me, invaluably, in researching the case of Serge Aleynikov.’
And last but not least important, Lewis’s acknowledgements. These take up a page and a half at Flash Boys end.
The first paragraph is, largely, a complaint about the difficulty of getting people inside financial institutions to talk on the record. The lengthy paragraph concludes:
At the same time, the people who work in these firms have grown more cynical about them, and more willing to reveal their inner workings, so long as their name is not attached to these revelations. As a result, I am unable to thank many of the people inside banks and high-frequency trading firms and stock exchanges who spoke openly about them…. (p. 274)
So, he acknowledges no one among his industry (or, for that matter, any other) sources. No one. Nobody outside the off-the-record sources offered help worth noting? Really?
When I look at non-fiction in a bookstore, I always check the acknowledgements. To a very high degree, extensive recognitions indicate better books. (Hat tips in the text, as in Peter Brown’s marvelous Through the Eye of a Needle (2012), have an even higher correlation.)
But acknowledgements are not just a marker of authorial generosity and humility. They are another vector for checking the author’s work.
In sum, on my indicia of credibility, here’s Flash Boys:
-Sourcing (footnote/endnotes): next to none
-Title clarity: very poor
Yes, all save the first and the last cost publishers in a time of terrible finances and declining readership. But at what cost to their readers? Their authors? The world of ideas? It is possible for a writer to tell a story so persuasively that it clears even these self-created hurdles. At this point in my reading of Flash Boys, Lewis is not close.
H/T: David Nichols for putting Flash Boys into my hand.