Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Glen Duncan Is A Dick

[The following screed reflects the opinions of contributor Aaron Hughes, and not necessarily the views of the Fantastic Reviews Blog. It concerns an issue about which Hughes is perhaps a tad oversensitive, but that doesn't mean he's wrong.]

I've never met Glen Duncan, so I don't know if he's always a dick. What I know is he made a dick of himself with this review in the New York Times. Duncan reviewed Zone One by Colson Whitehead, a new zombie novel by a respected mainstream author.

Duncan begins his review: "A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star." In this analogy, genre fiction is the porn star, sexy but stupid, while the intellectual is Colson Whitehead. Much more to the point, the intellectual is Glen Duncan, also a mainstream author who has dabbled in genre tropes, particularly in his most recent novel The Last Werewolf and its forthcoming sequels (which have made him Britain's second most successful fantasy novelist named "Duncan," behind Hal Duncan). Glen Duncan's review is in large part a self-serving complaint about the mistreatment "literary" novelists receive when they write genre. So, for example, when Duncan warns Whitehead that uncultured Amazon reviewers will fail to appreciate his intellectual approach to zombie fiction, we can safely infer that Duncan has been closely studying his own Amazon reviews.

Let me offer a counter-analogy to Glen Duncan's porn star comparison. Glen Duncan fancies himself an intellectual, so we'll picture him as a college professor. And since he doesn't see anything wrong with dropping casual references to women as mindless bimbos, let's place him in the 1950's. Duncan is at a faculty party when the new associate professor arrives with his wife, so gorgeous and shapely one might say she looks like a porn star. Duncan enviously snickers to the other tenured professors in the corner about what hot sex the new guy must be getting, but he never speaks to the fellow's wife long enough to realize she is the smartest person in the room.

In his review, Duncan snickers that knuckle-dragging genre readers will balk at Whitehead's use of terms like "cathected" or "brisant." He makes a point of dropping fancy terms of his own -- I had to scratch my low brow at his reference to "ludic violence." But China Miéville, arguably the most important British fantasist of the current generation, doesn't shield his genre readers from his extensive vocabulary. If Duncan hasn't read Miéville, how about J.G. Ballard and Thomas Disch, British authors who were using lots of them big words in their genre fiction before Glen Duncan learned to stop sucking his thumb? Duncan's assertion that authors must dumb down their language to satisfy genre readers is demonstrably false, and only reveals his own appalling ignorance of the genre he is currently writing in and writing about.

(As an aside, Colson Whitehead doesn't seem to share Duncan's insulting and condescending attitudes. He recently admonished literary purists asking why he would write genre fiction, "Don't be such a snob." So we should try not to hold Duncan's deplorable review against Whitehead.)

I will grant Duncan that genre readers have less tolerance than "literary" mainstream readers of aimless meanderings in their fiction. In his review of Zone One, Duncan is untroubled to declare that the book has no plot, and he snidely dismisses anyone who might dislike this as suffering from "limited attention span." But could it be that genre fans are simply more discerning readers? The strength of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genre is that most of its authors seek to combine an effective writing style with an engaging story. And once you become accustomed to books that tell a good story, you can quickly lose patience with those that don't.

A few days before Duncan's obnoxious review, the New York Times published a more thoughtful review of recent genre fiction by Dana Jennings. Jennings correctly identified Geoff Ryman's "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter" as one of the most powerful stories of the past decade. "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter" is a ghost story by a genre writer, but I would be surprised to learn that Glen Duncan has ever in his career written a passage as beautiful or thought-provoking.

Of course, not all genre fiction holds to this level. A few authors have found great commercial success despite clunky prose, by keeping their stories moving along and usually by including plenty of sex. But a great many science fiction, fantasy, and horror authors take a far more literary approach to the genre. And the readers who enjoy their literary genre fiction are in many cases the same readers who made Glen Duncan's Last Werewolf a success. If Duncan would like the sequel to earn out its advance, he had best hope that his readers were too busy watching porn to read the New York Times this weekend.


Tracy Ryan said...

You said, "... since he doesn't see anything wrong with dropping casual references to women as mindless bimbos... wife, so gorgeous and shapely one might say she looks like a porn star... [Duncan] never speaks to the fellow's wife long enough to realize she is the smartest person in the room."

Did Duncan's review assign gender to either the intellectual or the porn star? Or is the gender thing just an assumption made on this blog?

Amy said...

There's a link to Glen Duncan's New York Times review in the second paragraph.

As I see it, this idiot is calling mainstream fiction literature the intellectual (cultured elite) and genre SF fiction the porn star (trash, selling out for money). I doubt he would deign to read anything by anyone he considers a genre SF writer. Probably, in his mind, anything good that incorporates genre elements becomes fiction, non-genre. He seems to thinks genre is sexy, flashy drivel for people with low attention spans.

Aaron Hughes said...

Amy is correct that Duncan is treating mainstream writers as intellectuals, while genre is the porn star.

But, in response to Tracy's question, he carries the metaphor to a more specific level. He focuses on a particular intellectual, Colson Whitehead. This particular intellectual is male and so (unless Whitehead is gay, which would be news to me) the porn star is female.

Amy said...

I think Glen Duncan implies the porn star is female. But I don't think this makes Duncan, or his review, sexist.

Marnie said...

We absolutely agree with you. Great write-up. As avid readers of zombie lit ourselves, it's infuriating to see Glen Duncan on a self-designed pedestal, constructed from a false notion of who a genre reader "must" be. You can see us articulating our similar beef here: http://dbcreads.com/2011/11/03/you-stupid-stupid-people/

The Dude said...

Wow. Way to reinforce Duncan's point. The (I use the term loosely) author of the post and commenters have all gone ahead and taken note of the gory, salacious bits - "He said PORN STAR! SEXIST! SEXIST!" - but ignored the meat of what he's saying (just like genre readers complaining about "boring" thoughtful bits between the carnage). Did any of you read the second page of the link? Where he says the bit about "never getting the porn star alone"? This man is not sexist. His new (horror) novel has a heroine to fucking die for. Try reading his novels, you might learn something.

Aaron Hughes said...

Dude, don't argue with a straw man. None of the commenters called Duncan sexist -- in fact, Amy went out of her way to say she didn't think his review was sexist.

The main point of my post was not that Duncan is sexist, but that he's a jackass. He's writing in and about a genre of which he has no familiarity or understanding. Care to respond to that?

The Dude said...

Sorry, Aaron. I mistook your casual reference to Duncan's "casual reference" to imply sexism on his part. My mistake, apparently. Not sure why you mentioned it otherwise, but I'll let that one through to the keeper.

Your alleged wider point is also just plain wrong, and exposes your ignorance of not only Duncan's body of work, but also of genre, literature, the market for each, and the sf authors you namecheck. Ballard? There are literally BOOKS about how much he hated and railed against the genre he was square-pegged into. And Mieville (while I love a couple of his books) is a deeply flawed writer who is shortlised on every major award for every book he puts out precisely because the field is so weak. Not to mention that you have cherry-picked three authors who in no way represent the bulk of genre fiction that Duncan refers to.

Speaking of which, if you choose to bother, you can read or listen to many interviews in which Duncan details his intimate knowledge and deep understanding of genre tropes, including horror. To state that he knows nothing about genre is simply to expose that you know nothing about him.

This is getting quite long, but I'll finish by suggesting that you read Duncan or, indeed, Whitehead, then compare and contrast that experience with a middle-of-the-road, best-selling novel in the corresponding sub-genre. You may begin to understand Duncan's point. Duncan's "Talulla Rising" is simply the best of the many werewolf novels I've read. If you would be so kind as to provide a few examples to refute that, I'd be grateful (because damn, I love a good werewolf novel).

Aaron Hughes said...

Dude, in one sentence I implied that the porn star analogy was sexist, but my main point -- developed explicitly over eight paragraphs -- was that Duncan is an asshole. Your defense of him is not persuasive.

It is irrelevant if you think Miéville's writing is flawed or if Ballard disliked a particular label (particularly since Ballard broke into the field over forty years ago, back when some of Duncan's criticisms would still have been valid). The point is Ballard and Disch had, and Miéville has, an extensive vocabulary, yet genre fans love their work, so Duncan's notion that genre fans can't handle big words or complicated books is plainly false. And if he is as well-versed in the genre as you suggest, he should damn well know that.

You are incorrect to assert that these three writers are atypical of the field. Readers in the fantasy and horror genres have embraced the work of any number of authors who have impressive vocabularies and who write sophisticated fiction. The first fifty who come quickly to mind include Daniel Abraham, Neal Barrett Jr., Peter S. Beagle, Elizabeth Bear, James Blaylock, Jonathan Carroll, Michael Chabon, Ted Chiang, John Crowley, Aliette de Bodard, Charles de Lint, Bradley Denton, David Anthony Durham, Jeffrey Ford, Eugie Foster, Neil Gaiman, Mary Gentle, Lisa Goldstein, Daryl Gregory, Glen Hirshberg, Robert Holdstock, Brian Hodge, Nalo Hopkinson, Kij Johnson, Stephen Graham Jones, Graham Joyce, Guy Gavriel Kay, William Kotzwinkle, Ursula K. LeGuin, Kelly Link, George R.R. Martin, James Morrow, Nnedi Okorafor, Susan Palwick, Paul Park, Tim Powers, Terry Pratchett, Christopher Priest, Philip Pullman, Patrick Rothfuss, Geoff Ryman, Ken Scholes, Dan Simmons, Sean Stewart, Rachel Swirsky, Catherynne M. Valente, Jeff VanderMeer, Gene Wolfe, Jane Yolen, and Zoran Zivkovic. If we expand this to writers primarily known for their science fiction, I'm sure we could come up with another fifty.

Go ahead, tell me these are all "weak" writers. But then you will have to explain how the ones who have ventured outside of genre have generally been very well received.

I'd be happy to read Whitehead's novel some time. It sounds interesting, although I hope Duncan's assertion that it has no plot is an overstatement.

I have no particular interest in reading Glen Duncan, because the guy's an asshole. I wouldn't be in a position to read Talulla Rising anyway, since it's not out in the U.S. until late June. Are you in Britain, or did you get an advance copy, or is "The Dude" a sock puppet identity for Glen Duncan?

The Dude said...

Ha! No, I am not Glen Duncan. I am an Australian, but I do work in the publishing industry. Genre is my area of speciality, and Duncan's predictions about the reception of Whitehead's book were spot on. I thought so when I first read the review, and, months later, have now seen his predictions come to pass.

Duncan refers to "the kind of reader" who takes offence at being forced to think. Do you seriously believe that sf, fantasy, and horror are free from this breed of reader? Because Duncan does not tar us all with that brush. He only states that this kind of reader will be exposed to this book due to the broad, mainstream marketing that come with a zombie book. If you seriously contend that this is not the case... no, I don't know how to finish that sentence. It is self evidently the case. Mainstream book, mainstream marketing, mainstream readers. It's not at all complex.

He also refers to amazon reviews. I wonder, have you even bothered to check the amazon listing for this book? I'll save you the trouble. 43 one-star reviews, 37 two-star, many making explicit reference to how boring, confusing, dense and "literary" this book is, and even some of the more generous reviewers demanding "Less chat, more splat!".

Your list is very nice. I have not read everyone on it, and think some of them are deadset hacks, but each to their own. I could easily give you a list of awful genre authors (almost anyone who publishes under BAEN, for starters), but that's pointless, don't you think? If you paid any attention, you may have noticed a few genre fans were a tiny bit upset when Chabon won the Hugo a couple years ago. He is hardly the name that springs to my mind when I think "mainstream genre novelist".

If you, personally, enjoy Chabon's work, or Gaiman's, or Powers', I again advise you to read Duncan's werewolf novels. They really are great.

Or, you can just keep passing judgement from a position of ignorance. Whichever you prefer.

Aaron Hughes said...

You are charitable, to say the least, when you say Duncan's review does not tar us all with the same brush. He says Whitehead is a "literary writer" and so "avoid[s] the clichéd, the formulaic, the rote," contrary to what "the dictates of genre allow." Duncan's entire review, starting with the asinine porn star analogy, takes a sneering tone toward genre readers and writers in general.

Kind of like your sneering tone when you say I'm passing judgment in ignorance. What am I passing judgment on? I haven't expressed any opinion on Duncan's fiction. I've simply said I'm not interested in reading it, because he's an asshole. There are plenty of terrific writers I can read instead who are not assholes.

Take for instance the three writers for whom you express approval. None of them would show that sort of disdain for his own readers. I've seen Neil Gaiman chatting pleasantly and signing books for his genre and comic book fans past 1:00 a.m. I spoke with Michael Chabon about genre, and he proudly identifies himself as a science fiction writer -- he is exactly the first name that springs to my mind if you say "mainstream genre novelist." (It's a bit odd for you to note that some fans weren't happy that he won the Hugo -- obviously most fans were, for that's how Hugo voting works.) And I spent a week with Tim Powers drinking in his views about storytelling, and he never once encouraged me to write the clichéd, the formulaic, or the rote.

I'd rather spend my reading time with authors like that, not with one who shows contempt for a whole segment of his own readers.