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