[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.