Boom Chika Bow Bow

As apparently no one will rest until I comment on this review, in which the writer opines that “A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star,” and then things get sillier from there:

1. This is a fine example of the failure mode of clever;

2. Charlie Jane Anders swats this one out of the park over at io9, so I don’t have to say much else about it.

56 thoughts on “Boom Chika Bow Bow

  1. “A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star,”

    In that both are best turned into movies?

  2. Am I the only one who followed the link to “Failure Mode of Clever” post and thought it applied to my comments on Whatever? Maybe I just need to shut up now.

  3. Wowzer. He really did ping the smug asshole bar so hard setting up his premise in the first paragraphs that I suspect it would be humanly impossible to overcome my initial revulsion for his tone no matter what the following content of the actual review. I really feel for the poor bastard who wrote the book being “reviewed” by this canoe.

  4. The term “Literary Fiction” just sounds pretentious and asinine. It reminds me of my high school English teach, Mr. Schatenberg, who said he didn’t respect science fiction until, you know, he read it (Dune and Foundation).

    My take: if you enjoy a novel and it sticks with you then it’s “literary”. Heck, even Scalzi is “Literary” if you enjoy it. ;)

  5. He just thinks he’s Simon Collwell (no, I don’t watch American Idolt). By starting off with what he hopes is a well placed hook, he can hope that people will read him more often. It is ironic that he actually says that he likes the book at the end of his review… I think that he’s worried that he might be confused with one of us philistines who like video games about splatting zombies.

    I hope that he can sleep more easily knowing that none of my fangoria friends will be able to hear him talk for more than a few seconds, without realizing that he is not one of us…

  6. Given the number of bright young women who put themselves through grad school by being sex workers of one form or another, we can surmise it’s possible to be both at the same time. We are, therefore, a bit more clever than the reviewer in question.

  7. I can’t say I see why the thought of an intellectual dating a porn star is so jarring. People are people, not labels.

    That said, I can see why people would think of John when the idea comes up. John’s the sort of person who would ignore the labels and have a perfectly lovely time dating an intellectual.

    I tend to think of John as the nerd’s Martha Stewart. He has a successful media career writing about things we nerds enjoy, rubbing elbows with famous people we nerds like, and living the life we nerds would love to live. And schadenfreude pie!

  8. The thing I found most striking about the review (and a point that Anders made about it) is that Duncan has such contempt for genre fiction readers, but he’s written a book called The Last Werewolf. I guess he doesn’t think the audience for his novels is smart enough to read a Times book review, or he wouldn’t risk offending them.
    The review has made me want to read Zone One and avoid Duncan’s books.

  9. Peeking at the reviewer’s (short) bio and bibliography over in Wikipedia, I can’t be certain if he’ll come back with, “but it’s OK! I’m a genre writer myself!” Or if he’ll go with, “trust me, I understand these things…I’m a literary novelist writing in a genre world!” With the latter option, I’m pretty sure there’s a hair flip involved, and yes, perhaps an upturned nose.

    Oh, and if I may be allowed: I’ve got buckets-full more ire for the New York Times website coders, for whatever infernal thing they’ve done to my right-click ability. If I highlight text, then right-click upon it – my text-selection is instantly cleared! Some artifact (intentional or not) of some special feature they have to link their own site-search feature into their content. Um, I’m already AT your site, NYTimes. At your article! I don’t need to search YOU for more information. I need my “Search google for…” context menu! ARRGGHHH!

    My apologies. That’s just been no end of irksome…

  10. That’s not the worst line. I find this more offensive:

    ‘ 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.” ‘

  11. Crap like this is why it took me 25 years to call myself a writer. It’s not just genre snobbery, but class and intellectual snobbery within the publishing industry that’s kept me away from it. I’ve always had the feeling that l’il ol’ trailer trash me, with a financial-aid, state-college education, couldn’t possibly have anything to write about that would interest the elite who control the printing presses. I was convinced that since I’d never be published, and therefore legitimize the effort, there was no point in doing it. Even though telling stories is one of the two things (singing’s the other) that has fed my soul since I was still in diapers, I avoided spending any time on it because it seemed like tilting at windmills. (And really, why fritter away my time on something so ultimately useless when there were bills to be paid?)

    Even now, I’m still dreading the process of trying to get published. I’ve been paid for some nonfiction writing, but I’m wary of shopping my novel to agents, under the fear that they’ll laugh at me because I don’t live in New York and have Carrie Bradshaw’s life. Logically, I know better, but the snobbery inherent in the industry is still pervasive enough that I’m shy of it.

  12. And yet Mr. Duncan seems blithely unaware that decrying genre fiction when his most popular novel cribs its title from a Modesty Blaise adventure is, to say the least, somewhat hypocritical….

  13. that wasn’t an elitist review at all was it (meant in the most sincerest sarcasm)?
    your links for responses, in particular “the failure mode of clever,” more than made up for the obnoxious review

  14. “A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star,”

    A dream come true?

  15. I find it ironic that this review is by the guy whose latest book not only features werewolves and vampires, but has the only example of a Hawt Werewolf On Werewolf Pr0n I can remember ever reading. Basically, the last guy I would have suspected of saying, “Genre readers is dumb and I hates them.”

    Maybe he had a bad experience with a fan or something, but I really don’t get where his attitude is coming from.

  16. Oh, no. As a proud SF/F reader, does this mean I should stop reading Native Son and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – both of which I am in the middle of at the moment? I mean, I would hate to stumble across any big words that I don’t know and have to cry myself to sleep. Oh wait, I’m not intimidated by words I don’t know. I’m intrigued by them and pleased at the thought of learning something new.

  17. The syntax is definitely I’m-so-clever Freshman Comp, but the guy’s recently written a genre novel that’s apparently been a lot more successful than his “literary” works. It’s like he’s the writer equivalent of the self-loathing guy loudly denounces gays at the same time as he’s cruising public parks.

  18. I kinda think it’s flattering, as a SF reader, to be thought of the “ONE” everyone wants but can’t have, and to whom everyone of import verbally ejaculates alone in a deep dark basement to impress.

  19. “…but the guy’s recently written a genre novel that’s apparently been a lot more successful than his “literary” works. It’s like he’s the writer equivalent of the self-loathing guy loudly denounces gays at the same time as he’s cruising public parks.”

    Mythago nailed it.

  20. “A plot summary is impossible: there isn’t a plot. To make matters worse, the protagonist is a laconic introvert of self-avowed mediocrity.”
    Isn’t that the definition of “literary novel”

    Okay, I’ll cut the snark. It’s another example of failing to be clever.

  21. “Literary novels” are novels which are only liked by literary students and literary teachers. Everything else is trite. I dont even need to read a genre novel to know that this is true.

    Why did Harry Potter work so well? Because adults and children loved reading them. Ask a literary person about this and they will go off about how there are so many better books out there.

    That no one wants to read.
    Especially not children.

  22. Looks like the literary set has discovered the zombie trope. Just like they discover the post-apocalyptic trope with “The Road”. The thing with these pretentious wankers is they don’t realise they’re tropes for a reason.

  23. I got the feeling he was dissing the genre writer and reader not because he believed what he was saying, but because he knew it was what readers of the NYT expect. Like the only girl in the room who agrees that yes, oh my god, girls are so stupid. Or the kid from the flyover state at the LA party who talks about the hicks back home. It’s not self-hating genre writer I see. It’s forelock-tugging-suck-up genre writer.

  24. I read the entire review. It sounded more confused than over the top snark. (Plus all I could think of was how (and why) I don’t find porns stars or strippers all that enticing; so the metaphor lost me right there. And the fact that I found my own digressions more compelling than what I was reading is pretty daming in itself.) I think the failure mode here is there wasn’t an argument to follow. If you peer down your nose at the genre sewers, then own that. If you don’t and it does not sound like the reviewer does here, then why adopt the language of that pose? And/or fail so miserably at getting us to see the irony if that was his intention? The review failed because it did not have a point more than because any particular argument was offensive or clueless. He hit all our fan buttons and then halfheartedly backtracked on every such move; so who knows what we were supposed to read into this. (Judging by the commenters here, you stopped reading after he hit the button; so even bigger failure mode on his part.)

    That being said, it sounded like the reviewer sort of liked the novel. And to comfort all the insecure commenters like Dave and Rick, John is no stranger to the Failure Mode of Clever himself.

  25. So what exactly defines a “literary novel?” Can someone give me some examples that don’t actually fall within a genre?

    I’ll also add that I was foolish enough to read The Last Werewolf, and as such I think I can answer the above question on Mr Duncan’s behalf by saying literature is where you use a lot of really crude language and try to pass it off as classy in a world-weary way.

  26. It’s not self-hating genre writer I see. It’s forelock-tugging-suck-up genre writer.

    That’s also a good possibility. “Oh, my genre novel isn’t like all THOSE novels! I can still come to the party, right?”

  27. Countdown to “Oh my god you guys I was being ironic“: 5… 4… 3…

    It’s so sad that we’re raising a generation who will never know that “ironic” in that sentence was not always a synonym for “a douchebag”.

  28. I managed to read the whole review, but I never got past feeling insulted from every direction. What an asswipe.

  29. The end of the review sounds like a recommendation for the book. So perhaps he’s just saying that the porn star gets teh intelligenz and the intellectual gets laid like carpet? Win-win? Or he’s just being a smug asshat to garner attention. Yeah, probably that.

  30. Yeah, I do have to say that when asshat is done insulting all of our testably-99th-percentile vocabularies, Zone One sounds pretty damn good.

  31. @Scott: You pretty much answered your own question on what lit fic is when you said it’s “where you use a lot of really crude language and try to pass it off as classy in a world-weary way.” Add “verbose and academic” to “crude,” and you’ve got yourself some lit fic.

    I shouldn’t diss lit fic entirely, though. Even as a genre fic reader and writer, I still enjoy the occasional lit fic read. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is a fantastic example; I loved every moment I spent with that book.

    An utterly hideous example would be Alice Hoffman’s Here on Earth. Before I was halfway through that novel, I loathed the main characters and just wanted them to die. Sadly, they refused to. The only character I halfway connected with was the girl who was in love with her cousin. And I choose to believe that says more about the novel than it does about me. ; )

    Kudos to Mr. Whitehead. I think I want to read his adulerated lit fic zombie novel. ; )

  32. Scott: “…literature is where you use a lot of really crude language and try to pass it off as classy in a world-weary way.” I’m no prude. I freely admit to dropping the f-bomb probably at least once a day. I also understand that there are people in real life who can’t string together a full sentence without using profanity as every other word. That said, maybe I’m hypocritical but I really don’t like reading novels/stories where heavy use of profanity is somehow supposed to “tell a realistic story”. Many years ago, when I was in grade school, a classmate of mine highly recommended a military sci-fi novel to me (don’t ask, it was thirty years ago, I’m damned if I can remember author/title). I tried to read it, but the dialogue and descriptive paragraphs were so laden with profanity that I just couldn’t get past the cursing long enough to try to figure out what the story was supposed to be about.

    Several commenters have asked “what exactly *is* a ‘literary novel’, anyway?” Here’s my take on it. There are many different ways to tell a story. Stream of consciousness, non-linear narrative, changing POV (from first to third person or vice versa, different characters using first-person voice, etc) , to name a few. Faulkner liked to use all three. Many authors perceive themselves as “literary” writers because they know how to use a fifty-cent vocabulary (or think they do, anyway) better than the rest of us can speak plainly.

    I’m more than capable of understanding a high-level vocabulary, but frankly, when I read fiction I’m more interested in story progression than in wading through an overly descriptive paragraph. It’s nice to know there are authors out there who can beautifully describe a scene, but if doing so bears little to no relation to the plot itself, I’m gonna skip over the flowery language. Only rarely do I have to go back and reread something I initially skipped, because the description was actually relevant to the story.

  33. “We get, in short, an attempt to take the psychology of the premise seriously, to see if it makes a relevant shape.” I’m guessing Mr. Duncan hasn’t actually read any good SF; someone needs to sit him down with some and make him read it. Maybe “Schlock Mercenary”; Taylor actually puts a lot of thought into his work and explores the consequences of his premises, and you probably can’t get much farther removed (at least in Mr. Duncan’s mind) from “literary fiction” than “comic space opera”…

  34. Just ran across this on http://www.dailycryptogram.com :

    The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.–George Orwell

    Orwell’s quote reminded me of the literary review in question here.

  35. The review made me curious so I download a sample from Amazon, and I thought the introduction was fantastic, so I bought it.

  36. I was told that the difference between Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction is that Lit Fic focuses on Character while Genre focuses more on Plot and Setting. That’s it.

    If this seems like an extremely vague definition with a very fuzzy line, that is because it is an extremely vague definition with a very fuzzy line. I think it actually has more to do with who ends up being your agent and your publisher then anything else. Sure some things are clearly genre and not lit fic, but you still end up with folks like Chris Moore, Lev Grossman, S. G. Brown, and Kurt Vonnegut on the lit fic shelf even though they are writing books that are fantasy, horror, and science fiction.

  37. I was told that the difference between Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction is that Lit Fic focuses on Character while Genre focuses more on Plot and Setting.

    Well, that’s obviously bullshit, but I’m not surprised you were told that.

    There isn’t really a distinction; it’s more of a heuristic. “Genre fiction is beneath Serious People’s Notice. Should a genre writer write something that’s manifestly Worthy, it’s not genre fiction, but literary fiction.” Note similarities to Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing (She Didn’t Write It; She Wrote It, But She Had Help; Her Masculine Side Wrote It; etc. ad nauseam).

    “Literary Fiction” isn’t even really a genre. All it is is a way of drawing a line around what’s going to be considered a legitimate topic subject for an academic paper (in, say, English, not sociology or linguistics, which are more reasonable about such things) without having to specifically justify your choice of subject. It’s also a way for misogynist assholes like John Updike to go on getting published years after his talent deserted him and his books became crap: no one dared to say “this John Updike book is crap,” because even though everyone knew it was, Updike is part of the Literary Canon and thus immune from criticism at that level.

  38. An interesting take on people with literary tastes.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2053566/High-brow-readers-opt-lower-brow-novels-going-e-books.html

    In particular “Fifty-five per cent said they had read fewer than a third of the books on their shelves while one in 10 admitted they had never read any of them.”

    So it would appear that the real definition of literature may well be something that you put on your bookshelf to look impressive but never actually read.

  39. I’d make one slight change: “A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual who is lousy in bed dating a porn star.”

    (Truthfully, though, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road alone is proof of how laughably wrong such aphorisms are.)

  40. Scott, to be fair, I’ve only read about 2/3 of the books on “my” shelves. This is because my husband’s and daughters’ books are also shelved here, and no, I haven’t read all of everyone’s books, just as they haven’t read all of mine.

  41. Strangely, in spite of the reviewers’s attitude, it comes across as a generally positive review (positive in spite of his opinion of the subject matter?). I can’t figure out whether the guy seriously has a stick up his @#%$ about popular literature, or is trying some sort of stealth attack on literary snobs (by pretending to be impaled)…

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