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.