Analogy Smackdown

Many of you are already aware of the Twitter uproar over Barry Eisler’s guest post on Joe Konrath’s blog, in which he compares New-York (or “legacy”) published authors to house slaves, victims of Stockholm syndrome, and abused spouses (Eisler and Konrath have moved to self-publishing). Some of you have even weighed in. I’m not commenting on that one–all that needs to be said has been–but if you want to rubberneck at the kerfuffle, feel free.

No, I wish to draw your attention to a less-noticed analogy (though at least one person I follow tweeted this earlier in the week). It appears in the opening paragraph of Glen Duncan’s review of Colson Whitehead’s new zombie novel, Zone One, in today’s New York Times Book Review.

A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star. It invites forgivable prurience: What is that relationship like? Granted the intellectual’s hit hanky-panky pay dirt, but what’s in it for the porn star? Conversation? Ideas? Deconstruction?

Dear readers, the next time someone tells you romance is “just porn for women,” you can smile smugly, knowing that all genre fiction is porn. Porn for stupid people, apparently, the kind who will find it a “moral affront” to have to look up some of those fancy-pants words Whitehead uses (like “cathected”; dude, I may read genre fiction, but I’ve also read a lot of Freud. I don’t have to look that shit up).

Honestly, I can’t work up real outrage over this stupid analogy (which makes some awfully big assumptions about porn stars), but I do wonder what’s behind it.  You might assume Duncan is just embarrassed to find himself reviewing a zombie book. In the remainder of his (postive) review, he keeps reminding us that Whitehead is a “literary” writer, and name-drops Orwell, Freud and Sontag. Obviously, he doesn’t want to be tarred with the moronic-porn-star brush.

Except . . . Duncan is the author of a “literary” novel about a werewolf. Which was (positively) reviewed in the Times by Justin Cronin, who whored himself out  cashed in wrote a best-selling vampire book after a couple of “quiet” literary works. Poor Cronin only rated a review by some editor from the New Yorker; I guess there are only so many porn-star-dating-intellectuals to go around. It seems the Times either enjoys rubber-necking at these mesalliances or knows its readership will jump at the chance to read genre fiction stamped “literary” and therefore not requiring shame (is that like dating someone who starred in art-house porn?).

So what’s Duncan up to with this analogy? Pandering to the imagined prejudices of the Times’ readership? Poking them with a sharp stick? Expressing some self-loathing? Maybe he’s just annoyed that the Times keeps asking porn-star daters to review each other’s work, as if they don’t rate a real intellectual’s attention.  Let’s not even mention the fact that, except for regular mystery mini-reviews, the Times ignores porn star books unless they hook up with intellectuals. Nor the absence of intellectuals (excepting perhaps A.S. Byatt) willing to be seen dating the porniest genre of them all: romance.



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12 Responses to Analogy Smackdown

  1. Merrian says:

    Just this morning,I listened to a books program that lamented and dismissed the queues for a fantasy genre author at a literary festival while the poor mid-list literary novelist missed out. Those teenagy-like fans you know; not real readers; not real grown ups. Then they went on to lament the need for an author to be their own brand and to promote themselves (a given in genre-land). Envious, judgemental wankers who refuse to acknowledge that genre/porn stars work hard for their living.

  2. sonomalass says:

    I was talking recently with friends about the genre fiction ghetto, and the challenge of identifying excellent writing when the whole genre is treated as pulp. I remember my father’s Ace paperbacks of the Lord of the Rings trilogy — cheap MMPs with cheap, lurid covers. Now, although still shelved with fantasy in most places, you see the effort to convey with packaging that this is LITERATURE. So would old JRR be a porn star or an intellectual? Or did he graduate from one to the other at some point, and does that have anything to do with him being dead? I’m trying to think of other examples.

    • VacuousMinx says:

      Mystery has a ton of them, with Hammett and Chandler at the top of the list. I think that Le Carre was considered “merely” a spy/thriller novelist when he began.

      If this kind of recycled, pseudo-argumentative tripe is what keeps book sections going, no wonder there is so little outrage at their demise. The invidious distinctions never end (the recent “debate” over the literary quality of the Man Booker nominees being a case in point).

  3. Janet W says:

    Janet W: Just such tripe — like Sonomalass I remember the evolution of the JRR’s tomes (I hit him at the Hobbit hardcover phase). Bet that jealousy underlines a lot of these invidious analogies. Pretty tired of having my reading choices judged so I can imagine how authors feel. Altho Please, as in pretty please with sugar on it, I’d rather deal with the criticism of some of my choices … that I still get from the ignorant … than stand behind some of the defenses I see. Save me from Ciao Bella style cheerleading or explanations of the good effects the (in my case, rom) genre can have.

    Do you remember Notting Hill? When Hugh Grant’s friend is caroming through Londontown at a great speed — he mutters something like James Bond didn’t have to put up with this shit. Well, when my mum finally got me to read and fall in love with Heyer’s Regency Buck, little did I suspect that I’d have to put up with people defending my reading choices. “No thanks, I’m good.”

  4. Magdalen says:

    Jonathan Franzen lost me forever when he refused to prostitute his childhood memories for Oprah but would prostitute his decision not to prostitute his childhood memories for The New Yorker. Of course, that required him to prostitute his childhood memories for The New Yorker piece, which was somehow okay. I guess he didn’t think there was any overlap between Oprah viewers and readers of The New Yorker. (I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one, either.)

    I start an MFA program in January in which there are five “genres”: popular fiction, literary fiction, creative non-fiction, screenwriting, and poetry. I’m told everyone gets along just great and respect flows in all directions. I hope that’s right, but it will be a pleasant surprise after seeing so much Lit Fic snobbery.

  5. Maybe he’s just annoyed that the Times keeps asking porn-star daters to review each other’s work, as if they don’t rate a real intellectual’s attention.

    *waves pompoms*

  6. It seems the Times either enjoys rubber-necking at these mesalliances or knows its readership will jump at the chance to read genre fiction stamped “literary” and therefore not requiring shame (is that like dating someone who starred in art-house porn?).

    Also LOLing here…

    • Merrian says:

      The radio interivew I listened too also talked about the literary novel take on werewolves as being better than the genre take – so dissmissive and as you say all about the shame.

  7. Merrian says:

    Just read an interview in Guardian books where the author Glen Duncan himself claims the porn analogy:
    “…Once I’d made that decision I had a blast. Mercenary cynicism morphed into aesthetic fascination. The hooker found herself prodigiously turned on by her trick. Clinical engagement exploded into a love affair. You get the idea.”

    • lizmc2 says:

      Thanks for that link! It seems amazingly hard (oops) for some people to talk about this without going straight to sex work analogies (even terms like “selling out” seem to have a whiff of that). But those tropes mean the conversation only happens within certain parameters that value one kind of literature over another, just as when readers talk about “guilty pleasure.” And I definitely think the choice of language reflects the shame people feel over reading and writing in at least some genres.

      • Merrian says:

        I was thinking about what his analogy meant for us as genre readers? According to him we are we all ‘johns’ and what we read is by definition illicit and compromising. In other words he holds the people who he wants to buy his books in contempt.

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