We are all pornographers now

Apparently, it’s that time of the year again. Time for another go-around of the eternal fight of literary versus genre fiction, cheered on as usual by critics rather than writers.

In the past few weeks, Zone One by Colson Whitehead, a book billed as a literary zombie novel, has been making some waves, inspiring among other things this article in The Atlantic that I linked to a few days ago. The Atlantic also offers an interview with Mr Whitehead who is definitely among the hotter male writers I have come across right up there with Neil Gaiman and Owen Sheers.

Now the New York Times, source of many condescending reviews of genre works, has published this review of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One by British writer Glen Duncan. Glen Duncan does like the novel. However, he definitely has issues with the idea of literary writers writing genre fiction.

A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star. It invites forgivable prurience: What is that relationship like? Granted the intellectual’s hit hanky-panky pay dirt, but what’s in it for the porn star? Conversation? Ideas? Deconstruction?

Yes, Mr Duncan starts off with a rhetorical grenade that is almost as powerful as a Hitler comparison in the US, namely he compares genre fiction to pornography. Now making a Hitler comparison to my face would probably lose you some teeth, while a porn comparison merely elicits a yawn and one of the following remarks: “You say ‘porn’ as if that’s a bad thing.” or “You must have lived a very sheltered life, if that matches your definition of pornography.” Specifically for Mr Duncan I would add, “You are aware that some porn stars are extremely intelligent people, aren’t you?”

So a porn comparison is already pretty strong stuff for the US, but Glen Duncan doesn’t stop there. Later in the review, he offers us this tidbit:

“Whatever is happening,” Susan Sontag pointed out, “something else is always going on,” and it’s this “something else” that Whitehead is really interested in. Of course it is: he’s a literary writer, hard-wired or self-schooled to avoid the clichéd, the formulaic, the rote. He knows reality — even the reality of a world overrun by gaga revenants — is always going to have more to it than the dictates of genre allow. So in the action sequences we get essayistic asides and languid distentions, stray insights, surprising correspondences, ambivalence, paradox. We get, in short, an attempt to take the psychology of the premise seriously, to see if it makes a relevant shape.

So genre fiction is cliched, formulaic, rote. Yeah, we get it. Meanwhile, literary fiction takes the psychology of the premise seriously – because all of the three hundred other zombie novels out there have never taken their premise seriously at all. There even is a bonus Susan Sontag quote, even though Susan Sontag was actually one of the first critics to take popular fiction seriously. Reading Against Interpretation at university was an eye-opening experience.

Having already made the crack about the intellectual dating the porn star, Glen Duncan also has to elaborate in the perceived intellectual lack of genre readers:

Colson Whitehead is a literary novelist, but his latest book, “Zone One,” features zombies, which means horror fans and gore gourmands will soon have him on their radar. He has my sympathy. I can see the disgruntled reviews on Amazon already: “I don’t get it. This book’s supposed to be about zombies, but the author spends pages and pages talking about all this other stuff I’m not interested in.” Broad-spectrum marketing will attract readers for whom having to look up “cathected” or “brisant” isn’t just an irritant but a moral affront. These readers will huff and writhe and swear their way through (if they make it through) and feel betrayed and outraged and migrained.

Now Zone One has several negative Amazon reviews, some of which even have issues with Mr Whitehead’s apparent thesaurus addiction. However, just as many of the one-star reviewers are people who came for literary fiction and were outraged to find zombies.

It is also very interesting that Glen Duncan offers Colson Whitehead his sympathy for appearing on the radar of genre readers (where he may already be – genre readers tend to read a lot, including literary fiction). After all, Glen Duncan should know what it feels like to appear on the radar of genre readers, because earlier this year he published a novel called The Last Werewolf whose protagonist is – you guessed it – a werewolf. Nor was this Mr Duncan’s first foray into the realm of speculative fiction. I, Lucifer from 2002 not only shares a title with a Modesty Blaise novel but also tells the story of the Prince of Darkness attempting to redeem himself by living as an ordinary human. At least two other of his novels seem to have crime and mystery elements. Yes, Glen Duncan is the intellectual dating a porn star, because he himself has written literary genre novels.

Charlie Jane Anders offers a fantastic takedown of Glen Duncan and his condescending review at iO9. John Scalzi weighs in as well.

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9 Responses to We are all pornographers now

  1. Estara says:

    Oh, you always lead me to the most delicious snark ^^. Not that I don’t agree with your take on this, but you already said what I think so I can’t do anything more constructive than nod, heh.

    I hope your health is doing better!

  2. You had me at “zombie” and you lost me at “literary criticism”…

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