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The Worst Book Review Ever Written?

Without getting into too much detail, and without debating the merits of Colson Whitehead’s new novel (which I haven’t read), I really thought this review by Glen Duncan of Whitehead’s new novel Zone One to be truly appalling. We can see the rhetorical gambit taken right in the first sentence, which he carries through through the entire review:

A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star.

Aside from being in exceedingly poor taste, what this sets up is an ugly, ugly analogy between literary and genre fiction (which, by the way, and as I’ve discussed on this blog for 9 years, is in many cases an arbitrary and/or permeable distinction).

Essentially, what this fine reviewer is implicitly (or, hell, explicitly) stating is that genre fiction is some form of pornography. Most people on the literary side of the tracks who know little of genre matters who nonetheless decide to tee off on it (and notice I didn’t put a comma after “tracks”) do it in a spirit of more-or-less benign cluelessness.

According to this paradigm, however, people read about spaceships and zombies purely to “get off.” Think about that. According to this, the subject matter has no inner content, and the characters have no possibility of inner life whatsoever.

And more than that, it places genre fiction outside the realm of literature (in its broadest term) at all-but rather turns it into a seedy form of subliterature that just happens to use words, which desensitizes the reader, exploits emotions, and is ultimately hollow.

The misogyny is also lurking right around the corner as well-clearly the “intellectual” is a male.

What’s more, to set up literary fiction as an “intellectual”-doesn’t that do an immense disservice to literary fiction as well? It sets up a ridiculous binary, and as the reviewer attempts to somehow circle the square…well, the results are not pretty. Throw in plenty of cliches (“the strangeness of the familiar and the familiarity of the strange”, verrrry deep), and you have one of the worst book reviews of a generation.

Mutating genre work into a form of “porn” is perhaps one of the stupidest and aesthetically disturbing things I have ever read. And it’s just as bad that The New York Times found it a-ok to publish this.

(update 10/31/11): hey look! An example of lesser-grade Stupid about these kinds of issues is here at Book Beast. It does posit the existence of permeable literary borders, but (by omission) implies that a crossing from the genre-world to a work of literary merit is pretty much unthinkable. Look, there goes a car with a bumper sticker that says “John Shirley’s stories beat up your canon.”

Still, I think this compare-and-contrast illustrates quite well the difference between benign cluelessness and malicious potshots.

Sun, October 30 2011 » Fiction

One Response

  1. Ted November 1 2011 @ 4:35 am

    A really bizarre review, considering that the reviewer ultimately appears to like the book, and that he’s the author of a werewolf novel that sounds purely genre.

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