Tag Archives: Wall Street Journal

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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Why It Is Very Hard to have a Rational Conversation About E-Books

Thanks to Nick Mamatas’ blog: http://nihilistic-kid.livejournal.com/ for alerting all to this whacky article in the Wall Street Journal about literary fiction and e-books.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703369704575461542987870022.html

Among the howlers in the piece:

1) The article only talks about hardcover prices and e-book prices, ignoring that around 70% of the print publishing market is in paperback.  It also gets it wrong about e-book prices being universally low.

2) The article posits the total whopper that literary fiction debuts used to draw $50,000-$100,000 advances on average from the big publishers. The reality is that contemporary and historical fiction debuts, whether it was being sold as literary or not, averaged advances of $5,000-$15,000 from big publishers. Suspense, SFF, romance, and children’s debuts paid advances on average of considerably less than that, and those figures have largely gone unchanged for the last twenty years.

3) That publishers are buying fewer debuts and at lower advances because of the e-book market. This ignores basic realities such as that A) e-books are still only around 4% of book sales; and B) the actual reason that publishers are buying fewer debuts at lower advances is the same reason that they always have — we just had a giant recession. Every time we have a recession, especially a violent, bubble-inflated one, publishers do the same things: buy fewer new authors for less advance fees, cut mid-list authors from their lists, concentrate on big name authors and demand that those authors perform better, and fire publishing house staff, often starting with editorial. Book chains close stores and some of them usually go out of business. It happened in the early 1990’s recession, complicated by the Gulf War and the shrinkage of the wholesale market, and it happened in the late 1990’s, early oughts in the Tech Bubble recession.

But this recession was the Great Recession — the one that was only a hair’s breadth away from being a depression. With the shrinkage of the wholesale market over the last twenty years, and with real estate values tumbling, this recession rocked even the big chains — who haven’t been as well managed as they might be — caused mass firings and consolidations in the publishing firms and got some terrific authors punted from their contracts even as they were building a following. It was a mess and is still a mess. And in those circumstances, publishers are exceedingly cautious about buying new authors, while at the same time realizing that new may sell better than old.

The Wall Street Journal seems to want to pretend that the Great Recession never occurred or is no longer a factor. It revives the commercial vs. literary myth, creates an imaginary past where “literary” fiction was supposedly once more valued and declares that the barbarian e-books will cause publishers to throw out literary fiction for commercial e-commerce. This ignores that quite a few literary titles do exceedingly well in the e-book market. So much so that agent Andrew Wylie made a massive e-rights deal with Amazon for his highly eminent clients’ backlists of classics. (Wylie, known affectionately as “the Jackal,” has made his fortune getting mega international deals for some of the most revered authors of the 20th century. Perhaps that’s where the Wall Street Journal got confused about book advances.)

It’s all ridiculous hype, which Christopher Mims expertly dissects for Technology Review in this piece, “The Death of the Book Has Been Greatly Exaggerated.” (Yes, the Mark Twain quote will always be used.) Mims opens with the question:  “Why are tech pundits so eager to announce that the Ebook is taking over?” And the answer is because they are trying to sell gadgets. Mims lays it all out for you with graphs and everything:

http://technologyreview.com/blog/mimssbits/25783/

The Wall Street Journal is interested enough in e-books (or rather iPads,) that it is planning to review books and cover the publishing industry a bit more. So expect more fantasy analysis soon.

Also, interesting news:

http://www.dailyfinance.com/story/company-news/amazon-pay-search-inside-book-customers/19647266/

This is of course a really bad idea that Amazon is working up for a feature that helped negate their one disadvantage over brick and mortar bookstores — the ability to pick up the book, read the back cover and skim a few pages to see if you like it. It would also reduce Amazon’s effectiveness as a search site destination. Even if Amazon doesn’t ultimately charge for peeking — which they are blaming on publishers, the same publishers they charge to have the search inside feature for their books — it is a symbol of what’s probably going to come — more charges for access to various parts of websites. It seems like a really good way for Amazon to lose sales, though, on the whole.

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Filed under book publishing, Technology