05 March 2006

Dave Itzkoff's Inner Child is Not Happy

On a quick first read, I kind of liked Dave Itzkoff's science fiction column in the NY Times. But I kind of like lots of things when I first read them quickly, and when I went back this morning and read it again, I didn't like it much at all.

I knew the column would cause some controversy, and, as Cheryl points out, there's already a letter in Locus. The best response I've seen, though, is Nick Mamatas's.

I wrote up my thoughts on David Marusek's Counting Heads all the way back in December (and also linked to Nick then...hmmm...), and though I had a similar response to reading the book as Itzkoff, I didn't feel the need to blame all contemporary science fiction for this fact.

Some SF is geeky. Some SF is focused on technological change and detailed extrapolation of scientific ideas in a way that may require both careful attention from a reader and interest in that sort of thing. Some SF is not about individual characters or providing much in the way of characterization. Why is this a problem? Because random people on the subway might not like it.

Itzkoff betrays a tendency that's easy to fall into (I certainly have at times): the desire for everybody else to like what you like. First, he wants to have the same social prestige for reading the kind of crap he reads as other people have for the crap they read: "As that lone subway traveler who still occasionally rides to work brandishing a dog-eared edition of 'A Canticle for Leibowitz' or 'The Illustrated Man,' I realize I'll never enjoy even a fraction of the social standing afforded to the umpteenth passenger who is just now cracking open a mint-condition copy of 'The Kite Runner' or a fresh paperback of 'A Million Little Pieces' purchased after it was discredited, and I don't expect this to change any time soon." I have a hard time mustering up much of a response beyond, "Boo hoo," because if the poor boy is wandering through the subways in search of "social standing" for the books he reads, there's no hope for him at all and he needs to get one of those expensive Manhattan shrinks to work through it with him.

The next sentence is the telling one: "But what truly shames me is that I cannot turn to any of these people, or to my friends, or to you, and say: Whether you read books because you have a genuine, lifelong passion for literature or because a feisty woman in Chicago tells you to -- you should pick up this new work of science fiction I just finished reading, because you will enjoy it as much as I did." And what, he's going to do this with War and Peace? Isn't that an interesting idea, though -- you should read this, because you will enjoy it as much as I did. How do you know, Dave? Maybe I'm more broadly read than you and will find whatever book you like to be cliched and silly. Maybe I've only read a few novels in my life, most of them in high school for quizzes and tests, and anything you give me to read other than the most basic and pandering drivel will be far less entertaining for me than a sitcom or a videogame or tractor pulls or advanced calculus. Are you so insecure about your tastes that you need validation of them from all the people sharing a subway car with you?

Consider the next paragraph:
I cannot do this in good conscience because if you were to immerse yourself in most of the sci-fi being published these days, you would probably enjoy it as much as one enjoys reading a biology textbook or a stereo manual. And you would very likely come away wondering, as I do from time to time, whether science fiction has strayed so far from the fiction category as a whole that, though the two share common ancestors, they now seem to have as much to do with each other as a whale has to do with a platypus.
So there are two things in the world, "fiction" and things that are unreadable by people on subway cars. There is also this person called you, and you don't enjoy reading biology textbooks or stereo manuals. This is a marvelous move, because here the equation is "you = Dave Itzkoff" and so the insecure writer has turned the world into himself. Clearly, his inner child, disappointed with the world, is acting up.

The implication here is that you is not a "geek", which is what a person who enjoys such novels as Counting Heads is. Geeks are outsiders, they are not normal, they exist on the margins, they are part of a freakshow, they have no social standing or political clout, and they don't read the New York Times. And they're taking over the world and making science fiction unsafe for the rest of us.

Except the thing Itzkoff calls "science fiction" (or "sci fi") doesn't exist. It doesn't exist as an opposite to the ridiculous "fiction" category he creates (since that doesn't exist, either), and it doesn't exist because all sorts of things get published as science fiction, and nothing he says about "science fiction" now is any different from what could be said about "science fiction" at any time those two words have been put together to describe a type of writing.

I'm not denying there isn't plenty of SF that is, well, geeky. It's not the stuff that appeals to me, but I actually admire it a lot, because done well -- and Counting Heads is done well -- it is intellectually audacious. Why should it have to be as appealing to the masses as The Da Vinci Code? This is to confuse quality with popularity, and that's a deadly confusion. I'll take geeky science fiction over the majority of what is published as either "science fiction" or "fiction" any day.

Looking at Itzkoff's list of favorite SF books, we see that he's obviously not Marusek's audience. No Hal Clement on that list. No Asimov, Heinlein, or Clarke. It's the softest of soft SF. I don't mean that as an insult -- I like the books he chose more than I like Clement, Asimov, Heinlein, or Clarke, too. But if you want to talk about whales and platypuses, they aren't "fiction" vs. "science fiction" but Itzkoff's preferences vs. the preferences of readers of harder SF. It is not David Marusek's responsibility to appeal to people like Itzkoff or me. He's got other things to do.

Amusingly enough, Itzkoff's choices and preferences suggest he is as crippled by nostalgia as the people who complain that SF hasn't been any good since the death of John W. Campbell (the people who were loving Clement, Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke). This is his inner child talking. Such nostalgia blinds readers to the good qualities of many contemporary books that don't fit into old templates. If Dave Itzkoff ever digests his inner child, he might discover that the world is far more complex and multilayered and joyfully, frustratingly paradoxical than he noticed before.

18 comments:

  1. Great post.

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  2. I agree. Super post. I skimmed the review, thought it ok then after reading your post about it realized what I pile of shite the review is and how it demeans and misrepresents most contemporary sf. What a dope!
    Ellen Datlow

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  3. You got it. Itzkoff's problem is that, despite his alleged geekdom, he still insists on categorizing science fiction - no doubt he trawls the helpfully-named 'Science Fiction' section at Border's and comes away disappointed that there is as yet no sequel to 'Dhalgren'. Perhaps he is thrown by the sometimes garish covers? One who reads "science fiction" for cachet, or not at all, will be uncomfortable with flashing something gauche on the subway.

    I'm amused that he was able to mention 'The Twilight Zone Companion' (wtf?) in his list of recommended science fiction. But no Stanislaw Lem? No James Blish? People who read science fiction, but who have no imagination (an unfortunate state of affairs) always have one favourite book by Philip K. Dick, and it's always the 'High Castle'. A great book, certainly, but if you want to convince us that classic sci-fi is the only sci-fi, then at least give us something that we haven't already read.

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  4. I ranted about this over at Asimov's the moment I read it. (Ranted, rather wrote, as the next generation of Geeks Inheriting the World was up from her nap.)

    If you are a respected publication, and you choose someone to write a column every week, do you choose an expert on the subject, someone who has a rapport and understanding--dare I say it, love for the topic? If you want a column done on, say, polar explorers every week, are you going to pick Roland Huntford or Dave Barry? If you're going to run a weekly piece on female reporters in war zones, are you hiring Christiane Amanpour or Ann Coulter?

    I suppose you're going to hire Rachel and Dave. Toothy, cute, cliched, and, above all, possessed with the kind of glibness that will make a subway-riding, briefcase-toting, callousless mid-level fella smirk with pleased superiority.

    It's so easy to entertain, rather than educate, isn't it?

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  5. Heh. Shoulda been Ann, not Rachel. That's what I get for changing cheerleaders in midstream.

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  6. I need the approval of The New York Times like I need a second appendectomy...

    That paper is trapped in a death spiral of declining readership and knows it — hence the nervous flirting with SF lit.

    Just ignore the Gray Old Crone. You'll be happier.

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  7. The real problem is that both Itzkoff's review and his list of favorite books suggest that he doesn't much read SF -- that he simply doesn't know many of the wonderful writers (ranging from Gene Wolfe to Octavia Butler) who are out there. He's supposed to be the SF expert for the "paper of record" and he just hasn't gotten around to reading much China Mieville? What's next--reviewers of books on the Civil War who just haven't gotten around to reading Eric Foner or James McPherson? I smell fiasco...

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  8. I thought the Mieville inclusion was very telling. Not because Mieville shouldn't have been included, but because it was basically a totally random choice. I'd bet the guy hasn't even read the collection--just saw it mentioned in Time and that was good enough for him. Gives him a little hip street cred.
    JV
    The whole thing seemed slapsidasical to an extreme.

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  9. This is not a criticism of Matt's analysis--I thought it was dead on and was my take on the first read.

    BUT, pick the nits all you want, at least the Times is doing a monthly column on SF. Gerald Jonas' reviews really didn't impact sales, but a column from somebody with the mainstream credentials of Itzkoff will help sell books to a non-sf crowd. And the clear subtext is that Itkoff is trying to ingratiate himself in with the prototypical NYTBR, sf-geek-fearing reader. While it can bother us (and indeed I found parts utterly insulting), he's clearly trying his best to pander to his audience. And if it works, keeps his column around, and sells some sf to people who wouldn't read it otherwise, works for me.

    I'll still turn to Matt, Cheryl, NYRSF, Letson, Wolfe, Gevers, etc to get serious sf criticism, and I'll appreciate the very legit criticism levelled Itkoff's way, but let's not throw the baby out with the dirty bathwater.

    --jim

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  10. I think they missed the boat, not having Ellen run the science fiction collum. But that's just me.

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  11. I think the column has the same mis-placed angst that most casual SF readers have with "modern" SF: no understanding of the evolution of the genre.

    Matt, I think you nailed the problem with this article precisely. I really don't think anything else needs to be said.

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  12. I found plenty to disagree with in Itzkoff's column, but I was glad to see it in the Book Review anyway. It devotes most of a full page to a single novel, which is a big improvement over Gerald Jonas's column covering three or four at a time. I don't expect it'll be a major source of useful criticism within the field, but I do think the potential is there for this column to increase the visibility of SF/F, in a positive fashion, to Book Review readers.

    I'd also point out the "Up Front" column of the Book Review, which features a brief interview with Itzkoff. He says he hopes his column "can help demystify the genre for readers who believe, mistakenly, that sci-fi and fantasy books have nothing to offer them, and to show them that the boundaries of these categories are fluid and ever-expanding. As far as I'm concerned, books like Jared Diamond's 'Collapse' and Don DeLillo's 'White Noise' qualify as science fiction, as do films like 'A History of Violence' and television series like 'Lost.'"

    I'm not sure what makes A History of Violence science fictional, but otherwise I think that's a fine mission statement for an SF columnist in a mainstream publication.

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  13. Nick Mamatas3/06/2006 10:24 PM

    Jared Diamond's COLLAPSE as SF?

    Wow.

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  14. I wrote about this column too, and felt the same way you did-- it's Itzkoff's tone, not just his perspective that scifi is some crazy outsider thing, that is so objectionable.

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  15. I think it's just a very unsophisticated approach, if he was in fact trying to "spin" things for non-SF readers. A much better way would have been to assume SF/F *is* part of the mainstream and that lots of people like it and use that attitude from the get go. That would have been as or more effect than his actual approach.

    JeffV

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  16. This is exactly the same as David Orr's poetry column: a person who doesn't actually know anything about a subject writing about it for other people who don't know anything. By virtue of that, his Sci Fi choices will be almost random, and worthless.

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  17. I agree with Jeff; in fact I'd like to go further and state that SF, for all practical purposes, now IS the cultural mainstream.

    Think about it:
    If some of today's writers refuse to write about cloning, robots, spaceships, science, technology and political upheavals, things which are real and affect our daily lives NOW.... isn't it THEIR problem that they fail to connect with the present?

    Just sayin'.

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  18. Claudio Piccinini7/30/2008 1:33 PM

    A reflection:
    I see a little pointless to discuss the quality of science fiction following the late 1960s growth of the genre as it tried to deepen and widen its scope.

    To me, its strength seems to have failed since we have ceased to have a shared vision and conception of what science is in the first place, and how we look to our everyday existence, not just from the "outside".

    Recognizing the intellectual legitimate role of many areas of thought, could open again possibilities for science fiction, otherwise I really see a very fragmented and weak panorama, with probably due exceptions but not so much…

    People hardly know the whole personal work of H.G. Wells, how would you expect them to have a truly critical approach to a field which has no longer its reference point in solid scientific thought?

    Claudio
    (I am from Italy).

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