Tag Archives: New York Times

When Good Book Reviews Go Bad

During the holiday craziness at the end of 2011, several friends asked me what I thought of author Glen Duncan’s now notorious book review of Colson Whitehead’s zombie novel Zone One in the New York Times, in which he pairs “genre” novels with porn stars and praises Whitehead’s novel by mostly ignoring that book and using the review as a platform to claim that works like his own novel, The Last Werewolf, can’t be properly understood by fantasy fans:

www.nytimes.com/2011/10/30/books/review/zone-one-by-colson-whitehead-book-review.html

My reaction was of course: poor Colson Whitehead. Not only are Whitehead’s views not in line with Duncan’s, (his response to those wondering why he would ever write a zombie novel was “don’t be such a snob,”) but his big Times review could have easily been assigned to a writer like Lev Grossman, China Mieville, Charles Yu, David Eggers, Catherynne M. Valente or Jeff VanderMeer, who have a clue what they are talking about regarding fantasy fiction, rather than a writer who saw the review as an opportunity to audition for media gigs as a 1960’s curmudgeon.

Whitehead, however, has been frequently paired up with Duncan in media coverage for Zone One, (Duncan’s Werewolf is published by Whitehead’s publisher’s sister house, Knopf,) and it was this reason why I was asked about the book review. Back in the summer, the Wall Street Journal, whose interest in fiction is practically non-existent but whose interest in what big movie deals are percolating was attracted by Justin Cronin’s deal for his vampire apocalypse novel The Passage, did an article that incited a wide ranging discussion on SFFWorld. The article couldn’t be just about The Passage for WSJ purposes; it had to be about a proposed “business trend,” and so it was about how non-genre, “literary” writers were recently now turning to genre fiction, presented as the land of the non-literary, to make money:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304520804576343310420118894.html

The article included Duncan, who also had a film deal, and Whitehead, and several other authors.

http://www.sffworld.com/forums/showthread.php?t=31197

In the discussion at SFFWorld, I pointed out that Lev Grossman, who was covered in the piece, was not new to this type of fiction as he’s been steeped in the community for years in his work as a critic and then as a writer, and two of the authors touted in the article, Melissa Marr and Michael Koryta, had never been anything else but genre novel writers, Marr writing her YA fantasy series and Koryta writing crime novels. Most of Duncan’s previous novels as well have been suspense and SFFH. His best known novel before The Last Werewolf, I, Lucifer, was a fantasy novel, and there has been no real indication that The Last Werewolf is somehow enormously different from how he’s written his other works, except this time he has had the resources of Knopf behind it in the U.S. The WSJ article was, as has often come up before regarding the imaginary fiction culture war, a bad social science and market research piece that included factual errors, as were Duncan’s assertions into Whitehead’s review about the thinking of fantasy fans, and the follow-up Times piece he got himself, in which he swears it was completely fine to disservice Whitehead in favor of his tirade because some Amazon customer reviews of Whitehead’s novel supposedly proved his point about the rest of us.

I said at the time of the SFFWorld discussion about that Wall Street Journal article that Whitehead had been too lukewarm in his quote in the article for my tastes, but since then in marketing Zone One he’s impressed me. I also said that I hoped Duncan’s novel did well and that this would help other authors get attention as well, even if he was propagating an outdated credo as a PR strategy. So my friends asked if I still had that wish, in light of Duncan’s engineered controversy with the Whitehead review. And the answer is that I do still wish Glen Duncan success, because success for one book helps the rest and success for a fantasy novel helps all other authors doing fantasy, not simply in sales but in media attention, wider awareness, and the kind of understanding about readers of fantasy, science fiction, horror and suspense that Duncan rejects. The Last Werewolf was a bestseller and I do not wish the series ill. For every Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz or Jonathan Lethem, who not only write like a dream but actually understand the historical context and literary power of these types of stories, there’s going to be a Glen Duncan, clinging to a fading dream of an empire that never was and being kind of a jerk about it.

Am I, though, going to read The Last Werewolf? Probably not. There are other writers whose work I value more highly and there’s only so much time in the day. But Zone One by Colson Whitehead? That is a novel I’ll likely try to read at some point. After all, Glen Duncan recommends it, even if he did so as sort of a backhanded compliment.

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Interesting Articles While My House is Being Ripped Apart and the Phone Lines are Being Repaired

1) Some movies have an odd history and mega stars:

http://www.cracked.com/article_19287_10-movies-that-famous-people-dont-want-you-to-see_p2.html

2) Andrew Wheeler deals with a really brain dead essay from Michael Dirda, who is upset that other people like things he doesn’t:

http://antickmusings.blogspot.com/2011/07/of-bestsellers-and-their-lists.html

3) Ursula LeGuin talks about her view of fantasy:

http://blog.bookviewcafe.com/2011/06/29/it-doesn%E2%80%99t-have-to-be-the-way-it-is/

4) Not sure how experimental these books really are, or for that matter view them as that not known, but it’s still an interesting list from Apex Publishing:

http://www.apexbookcompany.com/apex-online/2011/07/issue-26-the-top-10-experimental-genre-books-youve-never-heard-of/

5) Joel Shepherd guest posts on SFSignal with cogent thoughts about women and Hollywood action films:

http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2011/06/guest-post-joel-shepherd-on-the-secret-to-successful-female-action-hero-films/

6) Lastly, Bill Keller of the New York Times has an amusing piece lamenting his staffing difficulties because his writers keep going off to write books:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/17/magazine/bill-keller-wants-to-ban-books.html?_r=3






 

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Filed under book publishing, Movies/TV, SFFH, Women

Gender Silliness and SFF

So this Sunday marks the debut of the first episode of Game of Thrones, the HBO t.v. series adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s alternate world fantasy series, Song of Ice and Fire. Song is a favorite of mine, a spin-off look at the War of the Roses combined with a zombie invasion tale. It has a little of everything in it, with brilliantly done points of view, and I would have up until recently assumed that it was the sort of story that would never be made into film or t.v. But times change, and so they are bringing this vast story to life and all bits and clips so far indicate that it’s going to be pretty good. It will also be a template for what may be possible for fantasy fiction in the future in the dramatic mediums.

But girls, according to folk who pay selective if any attention to the world around them, are not supposed to like cool things, something I’ve been told all my life — and yet curiously ignored. And so the New York Times reviewer, a woman, roundly denounced Game as throwing in some romance porn for the ladies, most of whom would otherwise flee, to allow guys to go and enjoy their cool stuff (which curiously does not apparently include porn.) This bizarre review, which made almost no mention of the show whatsoever, was accompanied by another one in Slate magazine online, which also didn’t really talk about the show and instead had the reviewer, a guy, talk about how awful he thinks all forms of fantasy are. But it’s the New York Times one that really has everyone up in arms, because in 2011, after Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Supernatural, Smallville, Heroes, Dead Zone, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Lost, Charmed, True Blood, Vampire Diaries, the legendary Doctor Who, etc., not to mention times past — Bewitched, I Dream of Jeanie, The Wild Wild West, The Avengers, Lost in Space, The Flying Nun, Nightstalker, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, The Addams Family, The Munsters, Fantasy Island, Wonder Woman, Highway to Heaven, Beauty and the Beast, Hercules, Xena, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, etc.  — to declare SFF a guy thing when it’s your job to watch t.v. for a living is basically having your head up your ass. Not to mention virulently anti-feminist.

Of course, what the reviewer meant was that the D&D fantasy stuff — what she imagines that to be — is the guy stuff. Things like Charmed, where three sisters worried about their love lives while kicking ass with spells to save the world, that’s not the same thing as lots of political skullduggery and women and men running around with swords. Girls can play house, but not soldier, and definitely not against a dragon. Oddly enough, you run into this attitude a fair amount among hardcore fantasy fans as well. They might agree that Games is really all theirs.  And just like always, millions of women will ignore them.

Here’s the article, if you want to read something strange, and below is the response that I’ve found to be the funniest so far, from io9.

http://tv.nytimes.com/2011/04/15/arts/television/game-of-thrones-begins-sunday-on-hbo-review.html

http://ca.io9.com/5792574/really-why-would-men-ever-want-to-watch-game-of-thrones


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Interesting Writings for a…man, it’s getting really chilly already!

First up, Matthew Cheney’s excellent post at Strange Horizons about the recent teen suicides and the issues of masculinity that lead to homophobia:

http://www.strangehorizons.com/2010/20101011/cheney-c.shtml

Second, an interesting pair of articles at Cracked.com on myths about males and females that turn out to be true or sort of true and others that are completely false:

http://www.cracked.com/article_18529_6-absurd-gender-stereotypes-that-science-says-are-true_p2.html

http://www.cracked.com/article_18760_6-things-everyone-knows-about-women-that-arent-true.html

Third, a good article from the New York Times on the fact that people in the U.S. got a massive tax cut and seem not to have noticed because the Obama administration did it sensibly instead of splashily and conservative propaganda has lied their asses off, unfortunately with the help of the media.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/19/us/politics/19taxes.html?_r=1&scp=5&sq=michael%20cooper&st=cse

Fourth, an older but still unfortunately perfectly pertinent piece from the Starship Reckless blog about women and non-whites being seen as furniture:

http://www.starshipnivan.com/blog/?p=712

And fifth, John Scalzi wrote a very moving piece about privilege, called “Things I Don’t Have to Think About Today.” If you don’t click on any other of the links here, please click on this one, and pass it around:

http://whatever.scalzi.com/2010/10/18/things-i-dont-have-to-think-about-today/

And finally, not a link but a bit of good news. A couple of weeks ago, SFF author Diana Wynne Jones reported in that she is doing better, that some of her cancer tumors are miraculously shrinking and that her doctors are stumped but thrilled. We’re crossing our fingers for you to make a full recovery, Diana! (Hey, it worked with the Chilean miners.)

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Filed under Life, SFFH