Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Mailvox: on Scalzi the author

Patrick is curious about my opinion of John Scalzi as an SF/F author:
Vox, his politics aside, what is your assessment of the Chief Rabbit as a novelist? China Mieville, for example, is a Marxist lunatic, but I read one of his novels and found it creative--if a little dull.  Do you think that Scalzi's would be more or less successful as a novelist if he stopped blogging, or if he merely stopped the political posts?
My assessment is that Scalzi is a one-book writer of modest literary talent who has prolonged his writing career through a combination of a) unusually good self-marketing skills, and, b) stunt writing.

In the recent history of publishing, there are a lot of one-book writers, by which I mean writers who have one genuinely good book in them and nothing more regardless of how many books they write.  Dave Eggers is a very good example of this while Jay McInerney is another.  I think David Foster Wallace would have proven to be one too; I even suspect the painfully self-aware Wallace knew this and the knowledge may have played some role in his suicide.

In most cases, the reason is simple: the writer is writing about his life.  Very few of us have lives so interesting that they are capable of supporting multiple books about them, so once the writer has finished his book about himself, he literally has nothing else about which to write.  Now, that's not the case with Scalzi; Old Man's War is obviously not about his life. But although it's a pretty good science fiction novel, (you may recall I reviewed it favorably), in hindsight it can be seen to contain the seeds of Scalzi's subsequent decline as a writer.  First, there was the transparently silly bit about the atheist who rebukes the bigoted Christian by - you'll never guess - quoting John 8:7.  How totally new and creative and different than anything that had ever been done before! That little scene was a hint concerning his intellectual laziness as well as the ideological inclinations that have increasingly taken over his public persona. Second, and more importantly, there were the heavily derivative aspects that briefly caused everyone to wonder if a new Heinlein had appeared upon the scene.

Not so much. What we didn't realize at the time is that the Heinlein elements were only there because Scalzi is insufficiently creative. He's essentially a fan-fic writer whose derivative works are publishable, not unlike EL James.  This isn't necessarily a bad strategy if you want to sell books, just ask Terry Brooks or every post-Laurell K. Hamilton author of urban fantasy.  But it's the exact opposite of being a good storyteller, much less a great science fiction writer like Heinlein.  I am not the anti-Scalzi, China Mieville is, their political kinship notwithstanding.

Scalzi sent me The Android's Dream when it came out and I also read The Ghost Brigades.  And that was when I stopped reading his books, not because I had anything against him, but because the former was abysmally unfunny and the latter was uninteresting. I didn't review them here because I didn't have anything positive to say about either book and I didn't wish to poison relations that had improved after our initial encounter.  It didn't surprise me when he went on to publish books like Fuzzy Nation and Redshirts, since by that time I'd already pegged him for a derivative stunt writer.

Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with stunt writing.  It requires an amount of cleverness and can definitely sell books, as AJ Jacobs has shown.  The problem is that you can't repeat the stunt, but have to continue coming up with new ones in order to stay relevant.  Scalzi's latest stunt, the serial ebook, was a good one, but has already worn thin.

I suspect Scalzi knows his limitations better than anyone, which is why he has been attempting to move on to television, movies, and games.  If he is successful in making any of those moves, it wouldn't surprise me if he stopped writing novels because he obviously doesn't write for the love of it or because he has so many stories to tell.  He's a true professional in that he writes to earn money, and he does an exceptionally good job in that regard at a time when it is difficult to do so. I don't think even his biggest fans grasp how gifted a self-marketing BS artist he is; had he gone into Internet technology rather than writing, he would be a very wealthy man on his fourth failing VC-backed venture by now.

I actually have great respect for Scalzi's ability to make bestselling soup out of what is very thin literary gruel.  If Tor knew anything about business beyond scooping up genre awards and paying for one-week bestseller list placements, they would hire him as an editor and turn him into a James Patterson-style book factory churning out three or four books per year. It's an absurd waste of talent for Scalzi to spend time writing his derivative mediocrities when he could be marketing them.  There are 500 SFWA members who could write them as well and at least 150 who would produce better books.

In answer to the final question, I think Scalzi would be far less successful as a bookseller if he stopped blogging, and I think it would be a huge mistake for him to stop the political posts because they are an important part of his appeal to his most loyal fans, the great majority of whom are SF/F readers.  Nor do the political posts appear to hurt at all him with the right. Conservatives and libertarians have always bought left-wing fiction because they are accustomed being offered little choice in the matter.

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Blogger Unknown June 25, 2013 6:19 AM  

I have been expecting him to start "co-authoring" a couple of books a year...

Anonymous Feh June 25, 2013 6:27 AM  

Nor do the political posts appear to hurt him with the right, as right-wingers have always bought left-wing fiction because they are accustomed to publishers offering them little choice in the matter.

I read his blog back in 2007 or thereabouts, and instantly decided he would never get a dime of my money.

Anonymous Mudz June 25, 2013 6:39 AM  

I don't know why but I always enjoy reading even the most senseless atheistic injections or skews in sci-fi stories. I just like seeing their POV in action. I mean, I'm already Christian, so there's little need to give me my own POV (and I grew up with the assumption that Christianity and fiction didn't mix, anyway).

It's the weird sexual stuff that I can't stand.

Anonymous Fail Burton June 25, 2013 6:52 AM  

Wow. That's pretty canny, dude. I agree. Not much under the hood but a great chassis, like the cars in "The Marching Morons." But that's inevitable isn't it?

Made me think of E.R. Burroughs, who was also all business. The difference is Burroughs was a naive genius as a story teller. It took him 20 years to get burnt out. No one's going to be troubling Scalzi with that bit of praise; he never wasn't burnt out.

Anyway, it's inevitable because, with so few writers writing with great authority and conviction, the title of "best" or "good" is more or less up for grabs, dependent on self-promotion, political correctness, building a fan base. The old built reputations on the work. New SF writers don't so much lead as pander. When Frank Herbert wrote "Dune," he wasn't pandering, but demanding. "Here," he said. "Read this." Definitely the same with vintage Heinlein and Van Vogt and Vance and Bradbury.

The new SFF writer carefully crafts in literal buzzwords: "gay," "cultural appropriation," "oppression," "colonialism," "non-white." What can you say about books where the reviews concentrate more on the author's race and the novel's non-European setting than the work itself? Can you imagine Heinlein, the great white hope? I can't read skin.

I understand making money but I'm not sure where the joy comes in. At some point art must trump market forces or it's nothing more than attractive salt shakers on Home Shopping Network set on velvet pillows. It's disingenuous to suggest the old was fan driven. Fans didn't know or imagine who John Carter was. They "know" vampires.

Pandering is a sure sign SF has gone mainstream, ever more subject to market forces and trends rather than a informed connoisseur. A connoisseur wants evolutions, a redneck wants more of the same. How many zombies can an artistically aware audience want? Today's SF literature is more influenced by TV and movies than by itself.

For reasons I don't understand, art has gone away. I don't know exactly why it was there in the first place, or why it went, just that it did. It may have something to do with the difference between a true eccentric wanting to appear middle class, and a redneck who covets eccentricity but in fact is merely fearful of being taken for middle class, which is what they are. All the tattoos in the world won't hide that. The real iconoclasts and eccentrics have long been scared away, because they will not conform, and they have to eat doing something else. In it's place is black and Arab REH and OCD Jane Austen and trans drowning in reality. It's "I was bullied" identity fiction. Who cares? The old was about a more universal humanistic reaction to bullying or constraint, not race and gender, and certainly not a platform to hate half the world and audience as a marketing ploy.

Blogger JACIII June 25, 2013 6:58 AM  

It's the warrior princes thing. Chicks with guns are hot, I admit, but the male/female interactions written by folk who rarely touch a girl are painful to read.
I must sometimes skip entire chapters these days.

Anonymous mm June 25, 2013 7:13 AM  

I enjoyed Old Man's War & bought a few of the sequels used. They're still in my to-do pile. It sounds like I can probably put them at the bottom of the pile.

Anonymous Lorem Ipsum June 25, 2013 7:19 AM  

Scalzi can be pigeonholed as a far less talented Neal Stephenson. I enjoy Stephenson's work, but after reading them I can't help but suspect that he's never actually seen a vagina.

They both hammer to death the trope of the gamma nerdling male somehow winning the heart of the strong independent yougogiiirrrl 'womon', difference being at least Stephenson exhibits occasional creativity and originality. Methinks there is a bit of projection in both cases.

Anonymous Catan June 25, 2013 7:19 AM  

I read Old Man's War up until the drill sergeant, it was passable up until that point, although Scalzi has an odd obsession with infantilism.

(Everyone named their personal assistant a profanity, uh huh huh, that's funny Scalzi!)

But the drill sergeant scene took the cake. Scalzi is such an anti-alpha that his attempts to write an alpha character come across as a talking cardboard cutout.

I howled with laughter, and my venture into his literary work ended there. No clue how the rest of it was, and I don't think I care.

Anonymous jSinSaTx June 25, 2013 7:56 AM  

I enjoyed Brooks Magic Kingdom of Landover series, though the last one was a bit thin on redeeming qualities. There is room for fluff fiction. Many of the old TSR books for example fit that mold. Fun and simple and no real push to take them as any more than that.

Blogger IM2L844 June 25, 2013 7:56 AM  

I stop by Scalzi's blog from time to time to see if he's written anything interesting and I always come away with the distinct impression that his writing has a nasal quality. I don't know how else to describe it, but I can't imagine myself reading one of his books.

Anonymous Big Bill June 25, 2013 8:27 AM  

And the War between Vox and Scalzi serves both their ends. Heck, that's a big reason why I come here.

There once was a Berkeley Classics scholar who got into a running war of words with an Ivy League Classics scholar in a learned journal. Over a period of months, the tit-for-tats between the scholars and their minions across the Classics world escalated and became quite vitriolic in the Letters columns of several Classics journals.

After a particularly vile volley of words passed over their respective parapets, an undergraduate expressed his horror at its viciousness to the Berkeley scholar.

The scholar laughed, drew him aside, reassured him that the Ivy League fellow was a good friend, and helpfully pointed out that the two were the center of all attention. Everyone in the Classics community was talking about them and their "war" and was choosing sides. Every other issue had fallen by the wayside. The minions were eagerly waiting outside the local drugstore to buy this month's edition of Classics Monthly.

As a wise man said, "there is no such thing as bad press."

Anonymous WhoDat June 25, 2013 8:48 AM  

I found the Old Man's War trilogy to be an example of someone who can build an interesting universe but couldn't write a character. All of the characters are almost exactly the same person.

Anonymous FUBAR Nation Ben June 25, 2013 9:17 AM  

Don't forget the gamma rabbit. Brilliant marketing.

Anonymous K. Tempest Fat Racist Whale Donkey June 25, 2013 9:33 AM  

Scalzi's insights into race are awesomesauce.

Anonymous Lorem Ipsum June 25, 2013 10:28 AM  

"Some of the oldest of the colony planets are beginning to show linguistic and cultural drift from their cultures and languages back on Earth. In ten thousand years there will be genetic drift as well. Given enough time, there will be as many different human species as there are colony planets." -Old Man's War, John Scalzi

So Scalzi hates Vox for saying the same thing, only outside the confines of a work of fiction.

Anonymous VD June 25, 2013 10:36 AM  

In ten thousand years there will be genetic drift as well.

Because space. Ten thousand years in space is like eleventy gazillion years on Terra.

Anonymous DJJ June 25, 2013 10:41 AM  

Looks like Barnes and Noble is on the ropes..


Anonymous Jim Hines: Speaker-To-Rape and Racist June 25, 2013 10:48 AM  

Comment from the blog called Jim Hines: Rape Chronicles.

"I get ultra irritated when an oppressor class, witnessing that the oppressed class is gaining grounds, attempts to hijack the tactics, and claims oppression in order to then be able to claim the ‘right’ to yell back at the oppressed class in order to beat them back down."

I often feel the same way during my scorpion vs. baby kitty cat table top wars I podcast to the Gulf States. And they're not cheap in pet shops.

Spitting cobras vs. chihuahuas proved a bust. Although surprisingly robust, the cobras blinded the little dogs and overpowered them in short order.

More money down the drain to follow parakeets vs. tarantulas.

Blogger JDC June 25, 2013 11:07 AM  

"Have I got me the coach's daughter for a girlfriend? I'm trapped in a young adult novel. A girl's novel, so it's all about the love story instead of the death squads coming to get me." The Gate Thief, O. S. Card.

No more sci-fi trapped in a gamma novel please. More death squads!

Blogger GF Dad June 25, 2013 11:09 AM  

IM2L844 - nasal. That was the term is was looking for a couldn't quit get. It describes his "snarky" (I hate that term) smugness. Thanks.
Vox - excellent summary. It was charitable where called for while still being honest.

OpenID cailcorishev June 25, 2013 11:11 AM  

"I get ultra irritated when an oppressor class, witnessing that the oppressed class is gaining grounds, attempts to hijack the tactics, and claims oppression in order to then be able to claim the ‘right’ to yell back at the oppressed class in order to beat them back down."

Ha, yeah, it sucks when your own successful tactics get used against you, especially by people who are able to be better at it once they put their minds to it. How dare they?

Anonymous Mary, Mary Not Contrary or Racist or Colonialist or OCD June 25, 2013 11:14 AM  

Here's one of my favorite Tales from the SFWA.

SFWA member Mary Robinette Kowal, nominated for 2012 best novel of the year Nebula, writes a story called "Weaving Dreams" and it is placed on the Apex SF webzine site. In that fictional story, Kowal uses the term "diminutive half-breed."

Ultra PC SFF writer Lavie Tidhar puts out a Twitter alert to shame her. The slavish Kowal puts it like this:

"Fortunately, Lavie Tidhar made a tweet flagging the use of 'diminutive half-breed' and then was gracious enough to actually talk to me about it."

Here's the Apex page:

"Note from Editor-in-Chief Lynne M. Thomas:
Mary Robinette Kowal requested the opportunity to revise this story, after a reader pointed out that parts of the story perpetrated racist and colonialist tropes. Mary and I had both missed this."

"Perpetuated racist and colonialist tropes."


So they revise the story and also leave the original up as a Scarlet Letter.

Who in all the great hells that ever were are these incredible people?

Blogger IM2L844 June 25, 2013 11:32 AM  

It describes his "snarky" (I hate that term) smugness. Thanks.

Glad to be of use. Combine that with the high pitched whine of a wheel bearing going out and that just about captures the essence(Hamster wheel? Nah. Hamster wheels have no bearings, but as my grandpa would have said, that's whole nuther can-o-worms.)

Anonymous Rex Little June 25, 2013 11:56 AM  

Conservatives and libertarians have always bought left-wing fiction

Sometimes even when it isn't. I always thought Orson Scott Card's writing had a left-wing feel to it, especially the Alvin Maker series. Surprised the hell out of me when I learned what his religious and political beliefs actually are.

Anonymous Feh June 25, 2013 12:27 PM  

@ Rex,

When I read a bio* of Robert Heinlein a few years back, I was amazed at what a Lefty he was. I knew his work, and I knew he'd attended Annapolis, so I sure didn't expect to find out that he was a supporter of Upton Sinclair and an enthusiast (in the late 1940s!) for world government.

* Patterson, Jr., William H.. 2010. "Robert A. Heinlein in Dialogue With His Century – 1907–1948 Learning Curve. An Authorized Biography, Volume I."

Anonymous GreyS June 25, 2013 1:17 PM  

Pegged pretty well, I think. Someone who goes from film critic to culture writer to scifi to games/tv/film (with some success along the way) is likely to be not specifically one of those things natural-talent-wise, but rather have talent in a more general way of finding one's way through the maze. (Seen that sort a million times in LA.)

Seems to me that short Oprah video showed a lot. He was merely being opportunistic there, sort of playing a role which he figured he could pull off and parlay for more. And then take that wimpy, sweater-wearing, blow-dried hair person and put it against, say, his current wikipedia photo-- where he is attempting to morph himself into the shaved-head tough SF writer. Going on VD's midwit theory-- he's no dummy but he's just a step behind the best and a step ahead of those below him. Which is probably why he never went into IT.

And the blog is beautiful in a certain way-- He is very adept at constant self-promotion and he knows how to handle his regulars and the interlopers alike, though the latter is done much more clunkier. I don't think he believes half of the new-think shit he peddles while promoting himself, most of that he seems to be playing yet another role. The blog serves his purpose, and though he sometimes loses his cool and focus, he pretty much always comes back to self-promotion. Contrast that with Damien Walter who seemingly spends virtually all of his life on twitter just making random comments on whatever the world serves up any given minute. He's not writing, not self-promoting, not working.

Then again-- Never read any of their books, so just looking from the outside..

Blogger Laramie Hirsch June 25, 2013 1:31 PM  

A humble post for such a vile opponent, Vox. You're the better man.

I wonder which book of Scalzi's you think is the one worthy of reading.

All of this demonstrating of the infected pus-filled liberal bias of the fantasy/sci-fi writing world makes a writer apprehensive to enter it.

Anonymous VD June 25, 2013 1:34 PM  

Seems to me that short Oprah video showed a lot. He was merely being opportunistic there, sort of playing a role which he figured he could pull off and parlay for more.

Bingo. I would say that if you want to understand the fundamental difference between Scalzi and me, compare that Oprah video with the piece I wrote for the St. Paul Pioneer Press on the Unabomber.

It's the difference between the hustler and the dilettante. And at least part of our mutual dislike is based on social class.

Blogger James Dixon June 25, 2013 3:27 PM  

> I wonder which book of Scalzi's you think is the one worthy of reading.

I thought that he had made it clear that it was "Old Man's War".

Blogger James Dixon June 25, 2013 3:29 PM  

> It's the difference between the hustler and the dilettante. And at least part of our mutual dislike is based on social class.

Which is strange in some ways. You'd think a poor farm boy from the hinterlands of WV would identify more with the hustler than the dilettante. But here I am and there I'm not. Well, the search for truth sometimes leads you to strange places.

Blogger tz June 25, 2013 3:40 PM  

Isn't Scalzi a Democrat?

Anonymous GreyS June 25, 2013 4:00 PM  

St. Paul Pioneer Press on the Unabomber

If you have a link, I'd appreciate it.

I've grown to appreciate hustlers and self-promoters. It changed for me one time when we were doing a series of meetings for a show I worked on, prepping for the upcoming season. The writers/creatives were working hard, coming up with good stuff and laying it out there to our boss. Halfway into the meetings the big bosses added another producer in with us and he was very aggressive and self-promoting. He would slyly take our ideas and change them enough to make it seem like he was really involved in the process-- but in actuality he had little talent creatively. Our direct boss knew this, but the big bosses didn't.

Of course, we'd get together and bitch and cry about the guy. But it dawned on me that what was happening was-- he wasn't just a snake, he also was prepared and hustled for all he could get--- and essentially *he was outworking us while in the room*. And despite our griping, he was the one always getting work on various prods and getting promoted step by step. I'd hear what jobs he'd get and just be amazed. He ended up partnering with a guy and starting his own shop.

I left town several years back, but watching that guy changed my mindset about whatever work I was doing.

Anonymous JonBrom June 25, 2013 4:16 PM  

"They both hammer to death the trope of the gamma nerdling male somehow winning the heart of the strong independent yougogiiirrrl 'womon',..."

Art imitates life? Check out the photograph of Scalzi and the missus on the Whatever blog, June 17th entry.

Body language is interesting,eh?

Blogger Bogey June 25, 2013 4:32 PM  

Old Man's War had a brilliant beginning but lost steam right when they got their new bodies. Maybe he should write geriatric stories for living. Just looking at his early bibliography you can see that he was basically a mercenary writer for hirer. "The Rough Guide to the Universe" and "The Rough Guide to Money Online" I bet if you asked him questions now about those subjects he would draw a blank.

The Oprah video says a lot about him. His run as the SFWA president was more self-promotion. Even that Gamma rabbit thing is self-promotion. He's like a machine that won't stop promoting himself.

Anonymous Connor June 25, 2013 5:01 PM  

John Scalzi is all but unreadable to anyone who has a brain. I know that within two chapters of what was supposedly his best novel, Old Man's War. It's embarrassingly bad. If not for his immense popularity as a blogger he would not even have won an agent, let alone sold a book. He's completely a product of marketing. Get enough people to say you're good, and they'll be plenty of people who will go along with that judgment, ludicrous though it is.

Anonymous James June 25, 2013 6:15 PM  

I'll go ahead and admit that I did enjoy The Android's Dream- not because it was funny, really, but because I just thought it was a good, whimsical sci-fi story. Original, too, which the OMW books are not.

Otherwise, I mostly agree. Scalzi is an average-to-good fiction writer (he's a better blogger- not surprising since he's been writing columns since the early 1990s). He does have a very accessible style and the Human Division gimmick was well-executed.

A bit off-topic, but I also disagree re. Wallace. I don't know if he would have written another *novel* to match Infinite Jest, but some of his subsequent short fiction and journalism are fantastic.

Anonymous VD June 25, 2013 7:38 PM  

His run as the SFWA president was more self-promotion.


Original, too, which the OMW books are not.

It would appear you have not read a lot of Philip K. Dick.

Blogger Beefy Levinson June 25, 2013 7:46 PM  

Even the Oprah video on mute says a lot about him. Arm straight and palm out to show us his wedding ring? The expression on the face of the woman next to him? Damn.

Blogger rcocean June 25, 2013 9:09 PM  

"John Scalzi is all but unreadable to anyone who has a brain. I know that within two chapters of what was supposedly his best novel, Old Man's War."

Well dumb people read SF too. You can make a lot of money writing books or making TV shows, movies, etc. for dumb people with little taste.

Blogger rcocean June 25, 2013 9:14 PM  

Strike the word dumb. That's too harsh. Replace it with "simple" or "Unsophisticated". Any how, there are plenty of otherwise intelligent, nice people, who just want a nice story about vampires, or lawyers who save the day, or Grunts who save hostages from the A-rabs. IOW, the jolly good story that they don't need to think much about. And usually, style doesn't really matter to them.

Blogger rcocean June 25, 2013 9:18 PM  

That kind of novel has always sold well. Probably the difference, it how truly simple these stories are now, and how they basically *manufactured* to sell and make money.

Its like today's average TV sitcom and those from the 60s. Seeing some of the "filler" from the 60s you get a feeling someone was trying to do good and just failing from lack of talent. While today, its just a cynical, "its good enough for the boobs" attitude.

Anonymous Dc June 25, 2013 10:54 PM  

"a) unusually good self-marketing skills, and, b) stunt writing."

Vox you forgot c) The lemming,provincial, groupthink of leftards. Without which A) and B) wouldn't have produced anything for him outside of that context.

Anonymous J. Scalzi, Privileged Nutsax, Sofa Purchaser, Purveyor of Bigotry June 25, 2013 10:56 PM  

Scalzi is so conformist, he plagiarizes himself every time he writes.

Anonymous Koanic June 26, 2013 3:13 AM  

As a TM, Scalzi is egalitarian and beta, with chameleon extroversion combined with a need for respect and periods of introversion. Works well as a marketer sub writer.

Blogger Justthisguy June 26, 2013 3:32 AM  

@Vox @ 1:34: "And at least part of our mutual dislike is based on social class." There you go again Vox, being all honest-like and adumbrating the Popeye statement: "I yam what I yam!" Someone has said that an honest man is the noblest work of God. M'self, I am but indifferent honest.

Blogger Justthisguy June 26, 2013 3:49 AM  

Dammit! Again! As I have written here before, I used to be content to mostly just lurk here, and sit at Vox's feet and learn, but since I have found out that Those People have been messing with My SF, I have been moved to make comments here. At least I got to find out about Mrs. Hoyt's blog. That was quite a reward for me.

Blogger Eric July 05, 2013 9:54 PM  

I picked up Old Man's War after Glenn Reynolds plugged it. There wasn't anything wrong with the story, but the writing is just painful. I read about three chapters and couldn't stand it any more.

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