Last year, Colson Whitehead — Harvard graduate, MacArthur genius, and all-around cool New York writer — published a zombie book, Zone One, which caused something of a stir. Into this stir, Glen Duncan hurled, via The New York Times, a review of the book that condensed nicely what many were feeling: "A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star". He goes on to complicate the simile in a see-what-I-did-there string of amendments and clarifications, each pointing a little bit away from the unspoken but essential core that Mr. Whitehead has done something beneath him. (Duncan does not go so far as to make one wonder which part of the metaphor corresponds to Whitehead and which to Zone One.)
That this response is snobbish and silly is, I think, fairly obvious (if you'd like to know exactly how snobbish and silly, the review is here). But Duncan is neither misguided nor dishonest — he isolates exactly how many people feel about genre fiction: that it is vulgar, that it engages the basest parts of its audience.
Around the same time, a totally unrelated book was also published: Ready Player One, the debut work of Ernest Cline, about a Dickensian boy in a dystopian future, where the internet is basically one giant Massively-Multiplayer Online game called the OASIS. While Zone One lurched, dripping, toward people who couldn't decide whether to run or shoot it in the head, Ready Player One buzzed through the series of tubes and pipes in the blogosphere, getting press on geek powerhouses Boing Boing and Wired. The message: here is a book for us. A book so full of Intellivision and Dungeons & Dragons and Battlestar Gallactica that it, like us, must have been savagely picked on in middle school. Here is a book that loves all the things we love, that knows our hurt.
In order to reach the important parts of this essay more quickly, let's get this out of the way: Zone One is very good, and Ready Player One is not very good. The reasons, in each case, are not especially interesting, in and of themselves: Zone One is made mostly of good sentences and complicated characters, while Ready Player One is made mostly of serviceable sentences and stock characters. I don't really like writing negative reviews, but it's unfair to say the book isn't good without any support, so here is Ready Player One on difficult situations:
What the hell was wrong with me? There was a good chance I might never escape from this place. I felt buried under an avalanche of self-doubt.
and on friendship:
I don't know anything about who Aech was in the real world, but I got the sense his home life wasn't that great. Like me, he seemed to spend every waking moment logged into the OASIS. And, even though we'd never actually met in person, he'd told me more than once that I was his best friend
And generally it does stuff like that, a lot. And spends too much time explaining the features of its world, and has a main character who is miraculously good at everything he needs to be good at, and is not even poisoned by unhealthy media images of women, to boot.
But: where Zone One is a bit of a marketing muddle (just because he's condescending doesn't mean Glen Duncan is always wrong), Ready Player One is a satellite-guided marketing cruise missile. Which is to say that the people who launch the missile, themselves extremely distant from the target, are pretty confident that the blast radius will include the coordinates they selected.
I don't mean to imply that Ready Player One is insincere or corporate in origin — Taylor Swift is another such missile, who writes her own stuff about her own experiences and who is then launched toward twelve-year-old girls by forty-year-old men. As far as I can tell, Cline is just as serious about his deep love for the various video-game/sci-fi/fantasy nerderies mentioned in his book as Colson Whitehead is about his love for zombies (he claims, in interviews, that he watches Dawn of the Dead twice a year). But this pair of books offers a good look at the curious way we think about genre and marketing.
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. 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 irritant but a moral affront. These readers will huff and writhe and swear their way through (if they make it through) and feel betrayed and outraged and migrained.
Under the searing smugness of the tone — more searing for the fact that Duncan himself writes horror books (these are his own fans he's talking about) — there is the familiar lowest-common-denominator thinking of corporate conglomerate entertainment the world over. People who like zombies don't like complex characters; people who read popular fiction don't like SAT words; the masses don't like reading, and will respond to those who force them to do it with vengeance (in his defense, anyone who takes Amazon reviews seriously will be led, sooner or later, into misanthropy). Common people like sex and violence and explosions; they must be distracted with bright colors, they will not stand for anything else.
For me, the significant point here is not exactly elitism so much as aesthetical hubris. Duncan's problem is not that he thinks "broad-spectrum" readers are dumb (well, okay, that's not his only problem) but that he thinks he knows what exactly it is that they like about the books that they like. This same kind of thinking is why we have Ready Player One.
Duncan's review represents just one facet of the strange discussion around genre in contemporary literature. The old prejudices against genre fiction seem to be eroding. Whitehead is just the latest in a string of Literary folks trying their hands at genre novels: Umberto Eco's murder mystery homage The Name of the Rose, Pynchon's noirish Inherent Vice, Jennifer Egan's gothic The Keep. Over the same period of time, genre outgrew its geek niche and went mainstream: first with the movie versions of various Asimov and Phillip K. Dick stories, then J.K. Rowling and the biggest fantasy coup of them all — which paved the way for Stephanie Meyer to make vampires normal. Stephen King publishes a (very good) book on writing and, if the sales figures are any indicator, lots of people want to know what Stephen King thinks about the craft. Genre books still receive little if any consideration from major awards, but one feels that this will pass when the current generation of awards committees is replaced by people who loved A Wrinkle in Time.
Yet genre, as a designation, remains: no longer just a literary kids' table (get those loud messy things off to the side so the adults can talk about Serious Matters) but a sales convenience: a section in the bookshop arranged to help the customer find more easily books he or she will like from the enormous, disorienting collection of spines presented by even the smallest store.
Booksellers frequently identify the problem of choice as their major opponent. John Q. Public doesn't want to waste his hard-earned money on a book he doesn't like, and he won't know if he likes a book until after he reads it. Furthermore, what it means to like a book is peculiar, unstable, and complex — some inexplicable alchemy of relating to the characters, being entertained, experiencing self-discovery, learning about the world, making an emotional connection. It may seem banal, but it's worth reminding ourselves from time to time that people frequently say they enjoyed a book that, in fact, caused deep sadness to the point of tears.
This inexplicable alchemy is highly personal, and no one has figured out a way to predict whether a certain book will offer that experience to a certain person. Instead, we have what we know: John Q. liked I, Robot, and I, Robot had robots in it, so John Q. will probably like other books that feature robots. A great deal of book marketing is based on claims following that structure. If you like [x], and [y] has [x], then you will like [y].
The effects of this strategy are easy to see. All the books about spaceships are arranged together, with extremely similar cover art. The same is true for books about cowboys, books about wizards, books about heroines searching for love.
But when a writer in one zone of the bookstore writes a book that belongs in another one, hilarity ensues: the new, zombie-including book gets shelved in literary fiction, next to Anna Karenina and The Corrections; the author gets asked over and over again if he had a hard time convincing their publishers to go along with him; Glen Duncan writes a patronizing review.
I discovered Pandora in the fall of 2006, and needed it badly. I'd grown up on my father's records — did you know you can understand the message at the beginning of "Fire on High" if you spin the album backwards? — and spent college listening to Handel's Messiah and various Chopin (I was not fun at parties). If memory serves, I seeded my first station with Guster's "Happier," because I liked the percussive acoustic drive and because I felt that I, too, had wasted every moment of my Saturdays and my Sundays.
Pandora delivered "Crane Wife III," for which I am eternally grateful (I'm so hip). And then it did something curious and stunning: it told me that I liked acoustic styling, major-chord tonality, and vocal harmony.
And Pandora was right. I really did, and do. For the next few weeks, I was consistently impressed by its ability to feed me songs I'd never heard before, and songs I'd once loved but forgotten about. Then the station got boring. I made a new one, this time seeding with "Crane Wife III," but pretty much got the exact same station. I tried a different strategy: I made a station seeding dozens of songs that I loved, that I could listen to over and over again, in hopes that Pandora would ferret out what it was that they all had in common. But, of course, it didn't. By knowing my preferred musical structures, Pandora could fairly consistently give me songs I enjoyed but not songs I connected with — songs I liked at first but not songs I could listen to on repeat.
This is what concerns me about Ready Player One and the way it was presented. It does not offer any of the things a good story offers: it will not help me to understand myself or other people, it will not offer a new perspective on a common object or idea, it will not give me a way of talking about something that I lacked — it will not, in fact, give me anything particularly memorable at all. It will give me a list of nouns, like "Final Fantasy" and "Jedi", that have emotional power for me on their own precisely because those nouns belonged to something that did connect with me on a level deeper than simple taste.
There's nothing inherently wrong with liking or disliking the conventions of a form. Practically speaking, this often manifests in enjoying things we feel we "shouldn't" — that is, art or entertainment below our standards for beauty, subtlety, complexity, or honest engagement. We apologize for these pleasures; we call them "guilty"; we claim to watch them ironically and profess a love for camp. Let me come right out and say it, without shame: I fucking love zombies. Give me ninety minutes of the shambling dead and I will accept an hour and a half of bad dialogue, questionable camera-work, and self-sabotaging (or entirely absent) metaphorical underpinnings. In fact, I probably won't even notice those failures while I'm watching.
But this is hardly a good basis for an industry-wide categorization scheme — it's not even good basis for personal selections, because I don't really know what it is about zombie flicks that engages me. Although a film's zombie-ness seems to short-circuit my artistic appreciation process, I know this isn't actually true: putting zombies in A Man for All Seasons for no reason at all makes for a worse movie. (That it would be a hilarious YouTube clip only supports my claim.)
What's really going on is that I'm more willing to suspend disbelief in the case of zombies. That I like zombies, and the story structures that usually contain them, means that I am more open to connecting with a movie or a book. But that doesn't mean that the zombies are the connection. The claim "you will like this move because you like zombies, and this movie has zombies" is exactly as ridiculous as the claim "you will like The Matrix Reloaded because you like bullet-time martial arts sequences, and The Matrix Reloaded has bullet-time martial arts sequences." You like [x], [y] has [x].
This problem compounds when we categorize in a way that prevents excellent examples from being included in their categories. Shelving The Name of the Rose in Fiction & Literature instead of Mystery makes the Mystery section, on average, worse. Margaret Atwood is sometimes kept off the Science Fiction shelf altogether, while Inherent Vice and Paul Auster's New York Trilogy are located far away from Dashiell Hammett. And Zone One will find a spot next to World War Z if and only if a bookseller decides to make some feature themed display.
I know, despite my Aristotelian leanings, that there are no easy answers in nomenclature, and I know that book marketers are fighting a very good fight to get more people reading more things. But I dislike any system that encourages Ready Player One while discouraging Zone One. The belief that people will prefer a book containing things that superficially remind them of things they actually like is not only faithless and cynical, but mistaken. Satisfying our simple tastes is the absolute minimum of a book's capabilities. However light, however genre, however beach-read-y, a book is an act of communication, and it is that connection, that willingness for the reader to invest and engage, that makes the experience of reading entertaining, and worthwhile.