Google Alerts brought me this news today: in a ranking of Famous Essayists from England, I am number 6, outranking Samuel Johnson, Zadie Smith, and others. The tagline for the article says, “includes Christopher Hitchens, Nicola Griffith, and more,” that more including George Orwell, Stephen Spender, Max Beerbohm, Dorothy Sayers, et al who just aren’t, y’know, famous enough to be in the tagline.
All of which demonstrates the peril of algorithms. Because, yes, I write essays. And yes, to some people I am, sometimes, semi-famous. But am I a ‘famous essayist’? Not by any stretch of the imagination. Given that I’m on the list just above Pico Ayers, my fellow judge in the recent London Magazine essay contest, I can guess how the algorithm weighted what, and why I ended on the list. And on a weekday morning that’s good for a grin—in fact I’m still grinning as I type this, imagining the confusion of the kind of reader who takes lists like this seriously.
Though perhaps now I’ll go write a story about an alternate universe where, in fact, I am a Most Famous Essayist. That might be worth some more smiles on this lovely light-filled summery morning.