On the New York Times' Arts Beat blog, author Glen Duncan responds to critics (presumably like me) who disagreed with his October 29 review (Oct. 30 in print) of Colson Whitehead's zombie novel Zone One. Duncan feels that his critics misunderstood the following paragraph:
Colson Whitehead is a literary novelist, but his latest book, “Zone One,” features zombies, which means horror junkies and gore gourmands will soon have him on their radar. He has my sympathy. 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.” Broad-spectrum marketing will attract readers for whom having to look up “cathected” or “brisant” isn’t just an irritating chore but a moral affront.
Duncan clarified his position in his blog post:
In the minds of the outraged, an exhaustive and heinous equation has occurred — namely, the equation of “horror junkies and gore gourmands” with “readers for whom having to look up ‘cathected’ or ‘brisant’ isn’t just an irritating chore but a moral affront.” The equation is possible if you ignore the obvious import of the phrase “broad-spectrum marketing.”
According to Duncan, the important point is the "broad-spectrum marketing," which seeks to attract the largest pool of potential readers, including "devourers of undemanding splatterfests," whom he believes were deceived by the book's marketing. Duncan takes offense at the notion that acknowledging the existence of unambitious readers makes him an "elitist jerk." His evidence, of course, is Amazon.com reviews (which, everyone knows, accurately gauge customers' real feelings), which teem with comments from the unlettered, who dislike literature smacking of education. Criticism of him, he said, was "politically correct literalism."
This clarification is disingenuous, and anyone so cultured and lettered as Duncan surely realizes this. His controversial paragraph makes quite clear that he sees a significant number of horror readers (the "horror junkies and gore gourmands") as uninterested in anything literary. Or, to put it in grammatical terms, the antecedent for the implied actor in the writing of the imaginary reviews Duncan created must be the "horror junkies and gore gourmands" since, grammatically speaking, no new actor has been introduced. Since the final sentence in the excerpted section above says that some readers will find looking words up a "moral affront," and the previous fake quotation he provided said that the imagined reviewer doesn't "get it," the equation, which his blog post now disclaims, is an essential element of the paragraph. I take moral affront to the accusation that I misrepresented Duncan. If he did not intend to equate "horror junkies" with the morally affronted, he ought to have separated the thoughts.
In any case, Duncan's blog does not discount the upshot of the entire affair: that he considers broad swaths of the reading public, especially genre readers, to be incapable or unwilling to appreciate true literature. This may well be the case, but I don't think it does writers much good to go around calling potential readers on their ignorance. The point of literature is supposed to be to broaden the mind, not to restrict it.
Duncan is probably right that a good number of readers will feel deceived by a literary novel masquerading as a zombie action thriller. But how many those are is impossible to say. Let's be really frank: There aren't that many people who read books anymore, and most who do are prima facie literate enough to understand them. Amazon.com reviews and online forums attract the extremes: the aesthetes and the barely-literate, radicals and reactionaries, etc., etc. The vast majority are planted somewhere in between and do not, as a rule, feel compelled to share their tepid reactions and lukewarm feelings. When Amazon fills up with five star and one star reviews, it is because online reviewers tend to come from the far ends of the bell curve. Taking them as representative of a binary world risks alienating the largest segment of potential readers. And that isn't good for anybody.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.