I didn't want to write about Glen Duncan's nerd-baiting book review in last Sunday's New York Times. The one that starts, "A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star." And just goes downhill from there.
The whole thing grossed me out, and felt like such a cheap shot that the only proper response was a sort of inchoate rage — the very response, I felt sure, that Duncan was counting on to prove his point. So I figured I'd interview Duncan about it, find out what the hell he was thinking, but he never got back to me. Here are the questions I wanted to ask him.
Images via Richard Kadrey/Kaos Beauty Klinik
Q: Have you ever dated a porn star? How did it go?
Q: Are you aware that "porn star" is a job, not a class of person?
Q: You say in your review that literary authors are "hard-wired or self-schooled to avoid the clichéd, the formulaic, the rote." Are you aware that most literary fiction is full of cliches? Elsewhere, you've written of your admiration for John Updike's Rabbit tetralogy — are you aware how many cliches those books have spawned?
Q: There's an undercurrent, in your Times review, of frustration with the readers of your werewolf book, The Last Werewolf. Have you actually had exasperating interactions with genre fans who felt that your work included too much reality? What form did these interactions take?
Q: Have you read Dhalgren? The Female Man? House of Leaves? The Wasp Factory? The Dispossessed? Air? In what way do you feel these books failed to show readers "the strangeness of the familiar and the familiarity of the strange"? (Something that you seem to feel genre readers will be unable to cope with.)
Q: The heart of your discontent with genre fiction seems to be that it doesn't allow writers to tackle all of reality — just the parts of it that are fantastical. That there's a certain psychological complexity, or texture, that gets lost in the fixation on monsters or whiz-bang gadgets. (William Gibson voiced a similar complaint about the state of the genre when he wrote Neuromancer the other day.) But wouldn't you agree that there's more than one way to write about "reality"?
Q: You also quote from Susan Sontag saying "Whatever is happening, something else is always going on." Which actually contradicts the thrust of your review — since you seem to think that in genre fiction, whatever is happening is all that's happening. Don't you think you missed the point of the Sontag quote?
So now I've posted my questions, and maybe Duncan will take the time to respond to them. Meanwhile, there doesn't seem to be much point in writing an outraged screed about Duncan's "genre slumming" piece — it really feels like we're mostly past that by now, when places like the Atlantic are celebrating the trend that Duncan decries. You're always going to have your Margaret Atwoods and Glen Duncans, because humans love hierarchy and status.
So instead of condemning Duncan, I'll close it out with a list of reasons why genre writers are like porn stars:
Genre writers and porn stars come from all sorts of backgrounds and social classes. Some have PhDs, others never finished high school.
There's underground porn and indy porn and vegan porn as well as huge mainstream porn — likewise, genre writers have a lot of underground imprints focusing on weird fiction that would make your hair curl, as well as big mainstream publishers.
Porn stars and genre writers work fucking hard, and sometimes get screwed over.
Porn stars and genre writers are both trying, in very different ways, to satisfy a basic human need for a transcendent experience, something that takes you out of yourself. People — who feel imprisoned in these bodies, these lives, these surroundings — crave escapism and fantasy, but also a feeling of connection to a world where implausible things happen. (For most people, having sex with an actual porn star probably counts as "implausible.")
There is a lot of terrible porn and a lot of really godawful science fiction. (Just like there's a lot of bad literary fiction. As we've noted before, "literary" is not a synonym for "good.")
Porn stars and science fiction writers don't really care what you think of them.