Your Favorite Book Sucks: 'World War Z - An Oral History of the Zombie War'

'Your Favorite Book Sucks' is an ongoing column, written by different people, that takes a classic or popular book and argues why it isn't really all that great. Confrontational, to be sure, but it's all in good fun, so please play nice.


This Won’t Be A Popular Opinion.

I don’t like World War Z.

I’ve actually never found anyone who agrees with me on this one, and of course I had to consider the possibility that I’m the problem here. But I’ve read the book twice now, just to make sure, and I’ve never believed that being an opinion outlier automatically indicates fallacy.

I want to like it. I love horror; I love history. I adore painstaking research and unconventional approaches to conventional genres. I cherish thoughtfully considered sociopolitical commentary deeply ingrained in my novels.  

But I simply cannot like this book.

Oh, I Get It.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I admire World War Z. I understand what Max Brooks is trying to do. And I can certainly understand why all of you love it so much.

It’s very smart. Brooks takes a The Good War approach to the long cashed out brand of zombies, giving a fictional oral history that reads as fact. He embraces that unspoken conceit, that in order to truly frighten readers, a writer must create a convincing reality, fiction that is more real than real.

World War Z is meticulously researched, thoughtfully conceived, unerringly practical. Brooks uses historical examples as templates for how each country will respond to the global threat. He criticizes American bureaucracy and isolationism, Middle Eastern bull-headedness, Chinese secrecy. He preys on our fears of the unknown, the unstoppable. He makes a zombie threat tangible, comprehensive, substantial. He charts a plausible geopolitical, cultural and physical outcome to such a global catastrophe. Max Brooks worked at this book. I dig that.

And Yet.

I cannot dig the result. World War Z, for all of its lively synopsis, feels like work. Somewhere along the way, as Brooks researched and conceived and plotted and theorized, he lost sight of something significant: entertainment value.

Don’t get me wrong. I would never argue that a novel has to be fun to be worthy. I love serious novels. Long, slow-moving, deliberate, dense novels don’t frighten me a bit. But the work that goes into those books should be imperceptible. World War Z reads as a chore, a checklist of points that Brooks wanted to make, a laundry list of ideas he wanted to express from his research with no cohesive emotion running through them.

So when I say World War Z is dry, I don’t mean that it’s slow. I don’t mean intellectually impenetrable. I mean World War Z is lacking in the one aspect I believe every novel needs: heart.

The characters are mouthpieces for Brooks’ own ideas, and therefore interchangeable. They’re all Max Brooks – a remarkable thing, as Max Brooks is already his own character in the novel.  Sure, some of the voices are different, but the emotions, the motives, the belief systems are the same. They’re his.

Ugh, “The Good-Byes” Section.

I suppose this part is meant to be the heart of the novel, as the characters introduced earlier in the narrative return to give their impressions years after the conflict has somewhat subsided. Maybe it’s only because I’d already checked out by the time I reached this portion of the book, but it reads as flat and inauthentic to me. I mean, get a load of this:

I wonder what future generations will say about us. My grandparents suffered through the Depression, World War II, then came home to build the greatest middle class in human history. Lord knows they weren’t perfect, but they sure came closest to the American dream. Then my parents’ generation came along and fucked it all up – the baby boomers, the “me” generation. And then you got us .Yeah, we stopped the zombie menace, but we’re the ones who let it become a menace in the first place. At least we’re cleaning up our own mess, and maybe that’s the best epitaph to hope for.

I just don’t buy that a person would ever say that! The problem with a fictional oral history is that every word must read as convincing dialogue. Sometimes Brooks nails it, but at the points where he’s trying to tick off one item on his Big Idea Checklist – and that’s most of the book – the dialogue reads as wildly questionable.

And are there really any striking distinguishable characteristics between these narrators? I could scarcely remember what they were referring to as they re-address their stories from earlier in the book. That’s a problem. Sure, maybe the problem’s with me, but I usually think of myself as a pretty careful reader. These characters just aren’t memorable. They’re flat.

And Of Course There’s This Other Problem.

I saved this complaint for last, because its deficiency is secondary to the emotional bankruptcy and workhorse application of the book. I also saved it for last because if I started with this, readers would stone me in the comments section as someone who can only be trusted to enjoy a snappy, superficial thriller I picked up in an airport.

But it must be said: World War Z’s episodic format doesn’t allow for any narrative momentum. Every time I almost became engrossed in a scenario, every time a character almost began to show dimension and substance, I was ushered into a new story, a new character. Of course, that’s how oral histories work, but because these people aren’t real, more effort is necessary to make them feel important and memorable. You don’t have to do that with real people – they are distinguishable and substantial simply by existing. So in theory, a fictional oral history sounds great, but it’s simply not as effective as an actual oral history.

And finally – okay. Sure. Above I said that a novel doesn’t need to be fun to be worthy, and I believe that. But shouldn’t a novel about zombies at least be fun? World War Z is smart. It’s thoughtful, academic and original. But it’s not fun, and I won’t apologize for wanting my zombie book to be fun.

Okay, go ahead. Ream me in the comments. I’m ready for you! And if there are any people out there who agree with me, please speak up! It’s lonely over here.

Image of World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
Author: Max Brooks
Price: $10.74
Publisher: Three Rivers Press (2007)
Binding: Paperback, 342 pages

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Comments

Brandon's picture
Brandon from KCMO is reading Made to Break October 26, 2012 - 9:18am

Meredith, I actually agree with you. World War Z is one of those overhyped books that I've always felt rather lukewarm about.

From a review I did two years ago:

This book is predicated upon showing the human element during the world's war effort against the undead. It's something specifically stated at the very beginning of the novel. Why this book fails is because it is a novel trying to accomplish a retelling of the war through stories, which, functionally-speaking, works quite well. "I'm sold" on the idea, so to speak. Regarding this supposed "human element," yes, I realize we're getting a myriad of stories from various people from around the globe, but this sort of works against itself when the quality vs. quantity phenomena is in effect.

 

What we have are hundreds of stories giving their personal experience of World War Z, ranging from the very beginning stages, to The Great Panic, to Turning the Tide, and beyond. However, because we're constantly shifting prospective, countries, and placement in political and social standing, we, as readers, never become invested in any of these "characters." There's also the added degree of difficulty the author sets for himself by having so many different locales, and therefore, cultural shifts throughout the book. I thought this would be a demand that author would rise to in order to create authenticity. Brooks, however, ignores country and continent. There is never a language barrier or a scent of broken English. The general in Japan sounds exactly the same as the Russian nurse and they sound just like the American corporal. It's lazy writing, and blatantly so.

Had Brooks spent half as much time on the cultural traits as he had the military jargon, he'd have a much better end product. At least this way, I'd have felt like I'd seen the world instead of simply told "this is [insert foreign country] but I'm going to Americanize it for you."

 

World War Z gets it's main point across: the war. I know what happened, how it happened, and how it ended. The problem is how that information was given to me, this sort of convoluted round-robin of interviews and stories. Brooks lets each of these interviews go on with very little interruption from the guy with the tape recorder, and with each of them being a crap shoot of good or not good or great or flat-out boring, the pacing can really fuck with you knowing it's ups and downs for 300+ pages.

This is the kind of novel that gives you the big picture through a series of pictures, and when you're finally done, you might feel as if some of those photos could have been deleted. They either didn't add to the story or served as a way of relaying military info that the author didn't have the good sense to cut.

 

To anyone who has read this, I ask: How much better could this novel had been with the same story, and around six or seven MAIN characters?

Bottom line: a great idea that truly sells me on the idea of waging war against the undead, however, the execution of "the human element" is DOA.

Juice Ica's picture
Juice Ica from Rhode Island is reading The Twelve by Justin Cronin & Beautiful Creatures October 26, 2012 - 9:25am

You already know this but you are entitled to your own opinion on the book and bravo for just putting it out there, I hope people respect your points and dont lambast you just because you "dared" to not like something.  I personally loved the book and I see what you are saying about it and I'll admit it took me a few chapters to become really engrossed in the story. That being said, I still think that its wonderfully smart, intelligent and a very believeable account of the aftermath of a Zombie menace. I think you're thoughts on the ending sections and what is believeable or not is very much up to your interpretation, I know people to say some pretty wonderful and powerful things while also saying some incredibly stupid and not so believeable things so Im of the thought that people say what they say, who are we to decide what is "believeable" or not?

This is not a perfect book, I can agree with that. It does sometimes get really dry but I do believe it has a lot of heart and I wish I could remember some instances of this but alas, I do not have the book with me to quote. But I know I teared up a few times and felt honest to goodness fear/sadness at the outcomes of some of these peoples tales. So it certainly did its job with me.

Regardless, nice job making your points and I have nothing mean to say to you. Good article and while I differ with your opinions I greatly respect you for writing it!

Tim's picture
Tim from Philadelphia is reading approximately eight different books. Most unsuccessfully. October 26, 2012 - 9:43am

Yeah, it sucked. I don't think I even made it through to the 10th chapter. Sure, I'm dubious of the whole zombie thing and am pretty quick to dismiss anything "zombie" but I loved "The Reapers Are The Angels" by Alden Bell and found "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" quite humourous and fun. Everything Meredith and commenter Brandon say above I can get behind. I just didn't feel it was worth that much thought. It sucked so I put it down and went off to find a good book.

leahzero's picture
leahzero from Chicago is reading everything Fitzgerald wrote. October 26, 2012 - 10:03am

All of these are reasons I really disliked WWZ, too. The lack of heart in particular. The few stories that seemed to touch any cord of humanity, like the radio one, were okay. The others were shit. There was no character voice, there was the voice of Max Brooks, in every single story. And his voice was boring and dry.

 

I think what bothered me most is that Brooks made his liberalism look really dumb in this, and by extent, most of his leftist-oriented social commentary came off turgid and self-congratulatory. Like, there are valid complaints in here. But making the US military do something so fucking bone-headed to make a point about Shock and Awe was just painful.

 

If you're going to criticize something, at least criticize some part of it that bears a passing resemblance to reality. This was just cartoonish and bad.

 

(If this double posts, sorry.)

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Stories of YOUR Life October 26, 2012 - 10:14am

I didn't love it, but enjoyed WWZ when I read it. Since it's more of a 'journalistic' piece, I forgave it some of its coldness. I definitely appreciate it on a technical and intellectual level.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words October 26, 2012 - 10:18am

I'm with you Meredith - I didn't hate World War Z, but I certainly didn't like it much. I'm actually not entirely sure why this book has a legion of fans. It's okay, as far as it goes, but there's plenty more stories to get excited about.

Meredith's picture
Meredith from Houston, Texas is reading Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl October 26, 2012 - 11:25am

Hey, this is easier than I thought it would be! Thanks everyone, and in particular Juice Ica for such a thoughtful and generous disagreement. 

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated October 26, 2012 - 10:39pm

I really loved it. I intended to flip through it at a book store and without realizing it I'd read most of it before I left. In a way I felt that the characters being someone what like Max was logical; in the World War Z verse he'd already done a large report on the subject and now he was doing a oral history so of course he'd visit the people he liked/liked him.

The quote I can see your argument, it doesn't read like something someone would say or write. I know that people would, people do all kinds of crazy stupid stuff so in a way I think it was brave to put it in. Brave isn't always a good idea though.

JEFFREY GRANT BARR's picture
JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life October 27, 2012 - 1:39am

I thought the point of Your Favorite Book Sucks was to say that good books suck. WWZ is to zombie novels as Stone Temple Pilots is to grunge. And if your favorite book is WWZ, then you've got better things to do than read LR: your 15th birthday party to plan, buy some clearasil, set up that Bieber tumblr you've been planning...

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list October 27, 2012 - 1:46am

My best friend is a huge fan of zombie novels and she didn't like this one either. I haven't read it yet. The book really have to grab me and I'm not sure if this one will, because I trust my friend's opinion when it comes to books. I loved The Zombie Survival Guide though. Her and I kept a copy of it in our desks at work, haha. You know, just in case of an emergency!

VicDiGital's picture
VicDiGital October 27, 2012 - 2:00pm

I'll agree that there were no characters you glommed onto and truly cared about, but that's not what this book was going for.  The main character was truly the WAR itself, and every effort was made to make that character real and fleshed out.  Following just one character or a core group through the whole thing would have made it more engaging, but at the same time more limiting.  WWZ was global in scope, with each event seen through the eyes of someone who had the most interesting and LOGICAL reason to be the subject of that chapter.  The movie version of the film is taking the single-character approach of making all of the key events experienced by whatever the interviewer character is going to be morphed into (and played by Brad Pitt).  

World War Z felt like a real event that had happened, and that's entirely because of the more clinical way the book is written.  As far as I'm concerned, it's THE masterpiece of zombie literature (not having yet read Mira Grant's books yet).  

A similarly 'dry' book I just finished reading and was also enthralled by is "The Islanders" by Christopher Priest.  It's written as a series of entries into a gazetteer about a couple of dozen islands out of thousands that make up a fictional world.  There are very few standard 'stories' in this book, but the overall effect of these seemingly clinical entries about an island combine to make a unique experience where you feel like you know all this world.  And like WWZ, there are events and characters that drop in and out of the various island entries, giving a bit more of a sense of cohesion and an underlying 'story' linking them together.  

Some books, like these, just defy the same rules you can rightly apply when reviewing other books.  This book wasn't going for a singular narrative, and it's not valid to review it as such.

kmk469's picture
kmk469 October 28, 2012 - 5:38am

In most zombie movies, eventually the characters try to get information about the outside world, usually television broadcasts, where they watch an increasingly frantic array of reporters and newscasters showing the breakdown of society under the zombie onslaught.  This is ALWAYS the best part of a zombie movie.  As a viewer, I want to sit down and watch these broadcasts from around the world.  But the movie always interrupts the broadcasts, taking away tantalizing glimpses of a more global conflict and forces me as a viewer to get back to  the "Narrative Momentum" of whatever characters I am stuck with.  WWZ is all those news reports and broadcasts, it gives the reader all the tantalizing glimpses he/she could ever hope for and that is why I love it.    The lack of "narrative momentum"  would predispose you to not like WWZ; whereas that same lacking is exactly what I wanted as a zombie fan.     

Tenacious.Apathy's picture
Tenacious.Apathy from Phoenix, AZ is reading The Stand November 11, 2012 - 11:07am

It's interesting because this article seems to reflect what I always thought was popular opinion about the book. I've never liked primarily for those reasons and think I barely made to the halfway point before giving up on it.

I've found it rare to meet someone that enjoyed the book and I suspect a few of those that did claim to enjoy it, didn't actually read it. They just like zombies so they automatically like WWZ.

Victory Grey's picture
Victory Grey from Southern California is reading Cloud Atlas/The Road/Haunted November 13, 2012 - 5:00pm

I have to agree with you, Meredith.  While I do admire the research and the entire concept behind it...I just couldn't get through the whole book.  I found myself giving up around halfway through, and if the rest followed the pattern I'd come to expect from it, I made the right decision for myself.  My biggest issue with the book was definitely the issue you mentioned with most of the text needing to read as authentic dialogue and it just ringing false more times than it didn't.  Also, getting hit over the head with thematic points like I'm too stupid to get it on my own through a more subtle approach isn't my favorite quality in a book.  It's hard to read a book that manages to be on its own soapbox so often.

I agree that a book doesn't have to be "fun" and while its supposed to be written in an expository light, its the dialogue of the interviewees telling their respective stories that should contain the emotional context of the story, and because they often felt so contrived, for me it just didn't work.  

That said, still kind of interested in the movie.  Zombie ladder!

OtisTheBulldog's picture
OtisTheBulldog from Somerville, MA is reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz July 3, 2013 - 2:40pm

I'm another one who was completely bored by it. I tried it twice. Got about 2/3 of the way through. There is NOTHING to care about. It's revisionist history with zombies. Who cares. It's gets unbelievably boring very quickly. I tried to get 100 pages in, hoping something would change. I set it down for a couple of months. I hate giving up on books, so I tried again. The beauty of this book is that it's a bathroom reader - as you pointed out - it's just vignette after vignette after vignette of characters and situations that you get swept in and out of. So when I picked it up again, I felt no need to rehash. Got about another 100 pages through and still could give a shit less about any of it. I even tried with the free audio book, picking up where I left off. I still could care less. It's truly a flat, unemotional, boring book. If I'm going to read research papers, I'm at least going to read non-fiction so I get something out of it.

Shannon Barber's picture
Shannon Barber from Seattle is reading Paradoxia: A Predators Diary by Lydia Lunch July 3, 2013 - 2:55pm

I like aspects of the book, some of the pacing/technical things but other than that I was pretty meh about it. Not a huge fan at all. 

bill__brasky's picture
bill__brasky July 3, 2013 - 3:36pm

I think you're overestimating the love for World War Z and you're definitely not alone in disliking it.  For me, it's a decent quick summer read and that's about it.  No better or worse than other genre quick-reads by authors like Steve Alten or Dan Brown (wow, talk about damning with faint praise) and just as forgettable.  I think my biggest issue with WWZ is that it's written entirely in one voice.  Brooks really struggles to differentiate any of his characters in any significant manner and they all come across souding like the same person.  If we were able to follow 1-2 main characters like you suggest this would be less of an issue.  As it stands, it's kept me from ever wanting to revisit it.

Macgowan's picture
Macgowan from New Jersey is reading House of Leaves July 4, 2013 - 7:24pm

I really enjoyed WWZ, but I can totally understand why folks wouldn't. I picked it off a roommate's shelf and read it in a single night (as is my custom), and I think I liked it for some of the same reasons that you didn't. I'm a total sucker for good worldbuilding, so my focus was on that, with character development coming a distant ninetieth in terms of things I cared about. WWZ reads more like an encyclopaedia of a fictional world than it does like an actual story, and that's something I'm fine with. Again, I fully understand why you might not be. 

That said, WWZ is nowhere near my favorite book, nor even my favorite zombie book. Still, I enjoyed it.

 

Mark Forrester's picture
Mark Forrester April 22, 2014 - 4:54pm

From a comment above

"There was no character voice, there was the voice of Max Brooks, in every single story. And his voice was boring and dry. "

And then the bit about it reading like work. I totally agree with that.

To me it seemed like writing by numbers. He added all the parts you usually see in a book, but i dont think he GETS it. It's like a pop song, it obeys the rules but theres no soul. 

Max Brooks didn't want to be a writer, he wanted to be famous. I'm sorry but that just doesn't cut it with me.

 

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated April 23, 2014 - 6:49am

It was much better as an audio book.

helpfulsnowman's picture
Community Manager
helpfulsnowman from Colorado is reading But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman May 9, 2014 - 5:29pm

^
Right on! The audiobook is a full-cast recording. Henry Rollins, Alan Alda, Nathan Fillion, Paul Sorvino, Simon Pegg, Mark Hamill. For some I know the different voices help breathe a little more (un)life into the book, so if you wanted to give it another shot, try the audio. I listen to it every October.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated May 10, 2014 - 5:06am

Yeah, it really takes off.  I was shocked because I didn't care for the book much, but the change in format really worked.

citizen's picture
citizen November 17, 2014 - 9:52am

Yes definitely, I liked wwz but at the same time didn't like it. I never really knew why until you pointed it out. The story is cool and all but the characters lack individuality and their own heart! And each character's uniqueness is What really gets readers intrigued... Still looking for a book that is both adventurous and emotionally captivating: dream book Will enrapt me with the epicness of it all..until that day comes..