Researching what books to review is hard work. When we are between advanced review copies, I often plunk down my own hard-earned ca$h on books. This creates an odd conflict: I ought to spend my money exclusively on what I like. Of course, I shouldn’t just review what I like, because that would be stupid and pointless and this whole enterprise would be rendered further pointless. (Question: is pointless v. non-pointless a black and white distinction? Can something be more or less pointless, or is it just pointless?)
Anyway, if I was a more educated, erudite soul, I probably wouldn’t have to pose such questions. If I was, say, Glen Duncan, adjunct book reviewer for this country’s Paper of Record, I would be equipped with those answers; I wouldn’t have to wonder.
Glen’s a smart guy, and I stumbled upon his review of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One last week while researching if this new and brazenly literary tale of zombie post-apocalypse would be a worthwhile read. Reviews have been mixed in some places — which surprised me, given that Whitehead is a beloved, accomplished writer of fiction. Lucky for me, Glen also found himself intrigued by this dynamic, and presented the issue in simple terms.
Colson Whitehead is a literary novelist, but his latest book, “Zone One,” features zombies, which means horror fans and gore gourmands will soon have him on their radar. He has my sympathy.
The construction of ________, but ________ in the opening sentence implies there’s a contradictory relationship between the two statements. We could fill in “…Whitehead is a literary novelist…” with “…Whitehead has no arms…” and “but his latest book, ‘Zone One,’ features zombies…” with “but recently, while fishing off of the Cape, reeled in a blue marlin…” and the effect would be the same. The initial _______ somehow works against the following _______. Duncan makes it clear — and so simply! — that a literary novelist writing about zombies is not your everyday chunk of caciocavallo podolico!
Of course, a literary stallion like Whitehead writing about zombies is sure to attract the young writer some unwanted attention: fewer NPR/community garden types, to be sure. Rather, “gore gourmands.” The worst part about these gourmands, you ask? THEY DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT A GOURMAND IS. Duncan continues.
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.”
Because like zombies, zombie fans have a zombie-like bloodlust for zombie writing in their zombie books. Cut this scene-setting nonsense. They care not about clouds or epistemology, they care about zombies.
Broad-spectrum marketing will attract readers for whom having to look up “cathected” or “brisant” isn’t just an irritant but a moral affront.
The problem with broad-spectrum marketing is that it attracts broad people, amirite?! And these broad zombie people don’t even own dictionaries, I’m guessing. The problem with these people — if they truly think of Whitehead’s opaque prose as being a moral affront — is that they don’t realize who’s being affronted (and they’d probably write “whose” there — that’s another problem). It’s so clearly Whitehead! Broad-spectrum marketing may widen his audience and line his pockets, but goddamn, it also involves engaging with a group of people who couldn’t tell you which one of Oberlin, Mount Holyoke, or Bates is west of the Mississippi. (Ha! None of them are!)
And now is no time for broad-spectrum marketing in the publishing industry, of all industries! The Gregorian 2011th year of the Common Era is a great time for the sort of narrow strategy that brought publishers to their zenith — both profit- and influence-wise — in the 21st century.
These readers will huff and writhe and swear their way through (if they make it through) and feel betrayed and outraged and migrained.
And they probably won’t make it through — don’t mince words, Glen! — Zone One. They will huff and writhe and swear like those tubby and resolute baby boomers treadmilling at Planet Fitness on New Year’s Day. And like those seasoned, toned, and shiny personal trainers who crack jokes about their fat clientele just trying to change, muscle-brained men like Glen Duncan know what these people need: a sweet little dose of reality. Go back to the couch, put the Hamburger Helper on, and turn on The Walking Dead, you scabs.
But unless they’re entirely beyond the beguilements of art they will also feel fruitfully disturbed, because “Zone One” will have forced them, whether they signed up for it or not, to see the strangeness of the familiar and the familiarity of the strange.
If I can just break character for a moment: can someone explain to me what that final, resoundingly stupid clause even means? ( “…to see the strangeness of the familiar and the familiarity of the strange.”) Please direct all emails to email@example.com. Best response gets a check for $1.89 and an autographed postcard.
It’s writers like Glen Duncan who so consciously and knowingly increase the logical and literal chasm between the simple thoughts and sentences that float around in our stupid little mammal-heads, and those which grace the page. Further, it’s writers like Glen Duncan who want so badly for the Arts World to maintain its capitalized status — to forever be this exclusive, elite kingdom where the barons sit high, deigning occasionally to fling insults at those below.
I still haven’t purchased Zone One — and may not — but if I do get around to reading it, I should hope that I am only pleased by what’s on the page, not the satisfaction I get from knowing better what’s on the page.