Dave Itzkoff: The Genre Dunce Who Won’t Stop Dancing

Dave Itzkoff has been an embarrassment to the New York Times Book Review for some time, imbuing his “Across the Universe” columns with a know-nothing hubris that one expects from an investment banker who considers himself an art expert simply because he’s had his secretary send in a tax-deductible donation to the opera. Never mind that he hasn’t once listened to Verdi. But Itzkoff’s latest piece truly demonstrates that the wretched and rackety well has no bottom limit. Reading Itzkoff is like being paired up with some otiose oaf on a field assignment who will cluelessly drill into a septic tank and spew all manner of malodorous shit without recognizing how incompetent and disgusting this is. Unlike someone like quarterback Eli Manning, Itzkoff’s instincts can’t help him win the game. Not even accidentally.

Itzkoff first tries to be cutesy with this column, comparing his subway rides to “Bruce Campbell dodging zombies,” when in fact the Evil Dead films concerned themselves with the backwoods, not an urban setting, and it was the supernatural (as opposed to zombies) that Bruce Campbell dodged in the Evil Dead films. He might have had a decent comparison on his hands had he evoked something along the lines of Lamberto Bava’s Demons. But a tired and clumsy reference to Bruce Campbell? Clearly, this was one of those “hip” comparisons that Itzkoff sneaked into his column not with the intent of relating to his audience, but to desperately pine for a geek chic he clearly does not and can never possess.

And then we have the telltale phrase of a dolt signifying everything: “I sometimes wonder how any self-respecting author of speculative fiction can find fulfillment in writing novels for young readers.” I wonder how any “critic” could write such a clueless sentence. Bad enough that Itzkoff invokes two books that have been out for many months (one more than a year) and is about as current on science fiction as a high school jock trying to crib tips from reluctant geeks who recognize a flagrant pettifogger. But this ignoramus also has the temerity to suggest that speculative fiction authors can only write speculative fiction and that there is nothing of value in YA books. Further, Itzkoff can’t seem to understand that selling millions of books may not be why an author turns to the form. As it so happens, China Miéville was once good enough to tell me that he didn’t write Un Lun Dun with money in mind. But he didn’t need to inform me about the artistic satisfaction he found in creating worlds for kids. It was, despite my quibbles with the book, nascent on the page. You’d have to be a tone-deaf dilettante out of your element not to see it.

Then there is Itzkoff’s ignorance in quoting Miéville’s previous works. He doesn’t cite the New Crobuzon books (were they just too long and too filled with big words for Itzkoff to ken?). He seems to think that a fantasy audience is more likely to know Miéville for King Rat and his short stories. When in fact, the reverse is true. And what should Miéville’s polemic on Tolkien have to do with the imaginative strengths of Un Lun Dun? Is Itzkoff taking the piss out of Miéville’s socialist views by comparing this essay to “one of the most imaginative young adult novels of the post-Potter era?” When, in fact, Miéville argued:

As socialists, we don’t judge art by the politics of its creator – Trotsky loved Celine, Marx loved Balzac, and neither author was exactly a lefty. However, when the intersection of politics and aesthetics actually stunts the art, it’s no red herring to play the politics card.

Un Lun Dun is not a case where the environmental politics stunt the art. And if this is Itzkoff’s crass attempt to be clever, to equate Miéville’s politics with his art, then why doesn’t he just fess up to what a pinko author Miéville is?

And then there is this bafflingly obvious observation:

When Miéville hangs a crucial story element on an alternate definition of the word “phlegm,” he does so not only to educate his audience about its forgotten second meaning, but also to acknowledge that kids love the word “phlegm.”

You think, Itzkoff? That’s a bit like writing, “When Miéville titled his book Un Lun Dun, he does so not only to suggest phonetic transcription, but also to acknowledge that kids love to misspell words.” It’s the kind of dull conclusion I’d expect from a burned out undergraduate taking on some hack assignment of dumbing down literature for a Cliffs Notes volume. Not something from the New York Times.

When Itzkoff brings up Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves’s InterWorld, the book is “still something of a departure,” presumably because Itzkoff remains incapable of fathoming why a fantasy author would be found in the children’s section. Bafflingly, Itzkoff writes that the book “falls into the same broad category as ‘Un Lun Dun.'” While you’re at it, Itzkoff, why don’t you tell us that the book is “published by the good people at McGraw Hill?” These are utterly useless sentences. Itzkoff can’t seem to accept a book as a book. He feels the need to pigeonhole it, even to suggest that Gaiman and Reaves had a specific type of reader in mind, when, in fact, the book’s origins have a completely different story. But Itzkoff is too lazy to conduct even the most basic of research. Again, he would rather assume and drop in a reference to Heavy Metal.

Itzkoff writes that InterWorld “isn’t sugarcoated for its readership” and describes how it “wastes no time in putting its young heroes in mortal peril.” Which leads one to wonder whether Itzkoff is even familiar with this little story called “Jack and the Beanstalk,” which featured this giant chanting for the blood of an Englishman. As nearly every bedtime reader knows, children’s stories have a long history of putting young heroes in mortal peril. See, for instance, the tales of Grimm.

Why someone like Itzkoff has remained continually employed at the NYTBR for nearly two years is no mystery. Nobody at the NYTBR gives a good goddam about science fiction, nor do they care about incisive coverage of genre books. I doubt very highly that Sam Tanenhaus or Dwight Garner have read one science fiction book in their entire NYTBR tenure. There’s certainly no evidence to suggest that either of these two have open minds on the subject. Garner once described Philip K. Dick as a “trippy science-fiction writer.” Which is a bit like calling Dylan “a trippy singer.” A New York Times search unearths not a single article by Sam Tanenhaus with the words “science fiction” in it.

So if Itzkoff, Tanenhaus, and Garner are failing on the science fiction front, why then should one give credence to them? Because Tanenhaus actually had the hubris to tell me (and a large audience) that the NYTBR is “the best book review section in the nation.” But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. To my mind, if you are an editor striving to be “the best book review section in the nation,” you should take genre as seriously as you do mainstream literature. You should not pollute your columns with clumsy cultural references that have no relation to the material.

And, above all, you should not hire a dunce like Dave Itzkoff.

[UPDATE: Andrew Wheeler writes: "Perhaps the problem is that Itzkoff has a whole page to fill, and, given that he's only read two fairly short books in six months, he doesn't have much actual content to fill that space with. So once again I will suggest a tightening of Itzkoff's assigned space. One word every decade would about do it."]

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18 Comments

  1. You want it both ways. Ask you about your poorly cribbed herpetology, and one is treated to a glibly nonsensical nonanswer about figurative v. literal zoology. Let a reviewer you don’t care for work clumsily with an Evil Dead reference and you’re off to the races. Perhaps these are figurative zombies.

    (Also, “otiose oaf” seems tautological simply to show off that one has received a Word-of-the-Day calendar in order to appear smarter than one’s subject.)

    I think you’ve also mischaracterized the reviewer’s argument. When Itzkoff writes, “I sometimes wonder how any self-respecting author of speculative fiction can find fulfillment in writing novels for young readers,” what I think he’s asking is a better, and more interesting question: What are the risks in writing original sci-fi/fantasy for young readers that doesn’t follow the Rowling model?

    But you appear to not want to be bothered with that. It ruins your thesis ad hominem attack. I can also assume that there must be some deep-seated pleasure for you in your Hatchet Jobs-style one-man arguments against writers you don’t particularly like. And yet, it’s these hatchet jobs that make you as unreliable as the reviewers you are railing against.

    One would want to suggest that the emperor here has no clothes; yet, one also realizes that the Emperor has no time to hear this, since he is too busy writing nasty things about one’s pants.

  2. “I think you’ve also mischaracterized the reviewer’s argument. When Itzkoff writes, “I sometimes wonder how any self-respecting author of speculative fiction can find fulfillment in writing novels for young readers,” what I think he’s asking is a better, and more interesting question: What are the risks in writing original sci-fi/fantasy for young readers that doesn’t follow the Rowling model?”

    Well, then, it’s still a stupid question because it assumes that children’s/YA fantasy did not exist or was not successful until Rowling came along. Hello. Diana Wynne Jones? Susan Cooper? Philip Pullman? What is the “Rowling model” anyway? All the comparisons to “traditional” fantasy in the review pre-date Rowling.

    I also like the implication that Rowling’s sole satisfaction in writing the Potter series was derived in licensing sales. Gosh, that whole first paragraph was just riddled with shallow journalistic thinking.

  3. “Well, then, it’s still a stupid question because it assumes that children’s/YA fantasy did not exist or was not successful until Rowling came along. Hello. Diana Wynne Jones? Susan Cooper? Philip Pullman? What is the ‘Rowling model’ anyway? All the comparisons to ‘traditional’ fantasy in the review pre-date Rowling.”

    But children’s/YA fantasy wasn’t successful, really, was it? Before Rowling? That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t good fantasy out there for the YA set (and, for the record, I don’t think Rowling’s ouevre counts as “good fantasy”) — but it’s my not-very-sophisticated understanding that Rowling’s Harry Potter novels were some sort of YA juggernaut.

    And this is an honest question: Have any of the other authors you’ve mentioned — Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper, and Philip Pullman — had anywhere near the publishing success that J.K. Rowling has had? A follow-up question I would be interested in having answered is what the sales of non-Rowling authors were before Rowling and then after.

    Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a letter to his publisher in the wake of the unprecendented success Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was having, both in America and abroad: “What is the mystery of these innumerable editions of The Lamplighter, and other books neither better nor worse? Worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the hundred thousand.”

  4. Yes, young adult fantasy was successful prior to JK Rowling. Beyond Cooper, Jones and Pullman there were also writers like Ray Bradbury (“Something Wicked This Way Comes”) and Madeleine L’Engle (“A Wrinkle in Time” and its sequels) to name just a couple.

    And then there’s CS Lewis and that little Narnia series.

    JK Rowling blew the doors off of children’s publishing, period. She blew the doors off of publishing, period. To make a comparison in adult publishing, it would be like suggesting that prior to John Grisham no one had success writing adult thrillers or prior to Stephen King, no one had success writing adult horror. (Or Danielle Steele and romance, etc.) There are several authors who gained unprecedented success but they did not invent the genre they published in nor are they necessarily the best writers in those genres. They wrote good books, captured the public eye and ran with that popularity to great fame and fortune.

    As to what kind of success YA fantasy authors other than Rowling have enjoyed, consider that Pullman, Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, L’Engle and so many others were able (and in many cases still are) to publish over long successful careers. JK Rowling has written one amazing series and made a ton of money (and good for her, I say). But whether or not she has more than the Harry Potter story in her remains to be seen. Sometimes money is not the only measurement of success. (If we only looked at dollars, Danielle Steele would be one of the greatest authors in American history.)

    JK Rowling did a great thing for kids with the Harry Potter saga but she is not where YA fantasy begins, nor – I’m sure – will she be where it ends.

  5. Yes, Rowling is a nonsensical choice for that kind of comparison. No one in literature, period, has a Rowling kind of success and if *that* was used as a general standard to be successful then technically all other writers just fall along the spectrum of financial failure. Not even Dan Brown, arguably, has had a Rowling level of success — are you going to go about questioning whether he’s really made it or not?

    (Oh, yes, and what about “The Hobbit”, forgot to mention that.)

    It’s saddening that I can go to the NYTBR with the reasonable expectation that the reviewer for the latest Coetzee is familiar with his backlist, his non-fiction and can perhaps spot a Nabokov reference here and there, but the writer in the SF/F column can only rustle up a reference to Harry Potter and the Evil Dead.

  6. Oh, sod the NYTBR. Who needs it anyway?

  7. The Washington Post book review section does the best job in the country with reviewing genre works. It uses as reviewers people who write in the genres: Elizabeth Hand, etc. The reviews are respectful, well informed, and lacking in glibness.

  8. @ both Colleen and Imani:

    I apologize. I’m doing a terrible job with my point. (Which begs whether I actually have a point — more than likely I don’t; however, don’t tell me just yet. It will only break my heart.)

    The point that I’m making with Rowling — and the point that I think Itzkoff is making with Rowling — is that getting a YA novel published, especially a sci-fi/fantasy YA novel, one needs to write something in the style of Potter. Whether its the publishers or the readers, there seems to be little interest in anything innovative in YA publishing.

    All the children’s fantasy you all have mentioned — I love all of that, too. Alice in Wonderland is one of my absolute favorites. But none of it has ever, as you’ve pointed out, had the same kinds of success that Rowling’s stuff has. And as much as we might want to say, “Rowling’s an anomaly — she doesn’t count,” her success is going to be tough to overcome. She could become her own special chapter in Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence.

    And, again, that’s what I think Itzkoff is trying to say in that opening. Getting a break in children’s publishing without writing some coming-of-age novel about a special child and his special destiny is going to be a challenge. And then he goes on to show a couple that might be trying for that.

  9. Aaah – I see what you mean. Has Rowling so affected the model that she has now permanently changed it (thus rendering all who came before her as classics, but possibly not titles that would be received well if they sought publication now)?

    Hmm. Well I have to point out Scott Westerfield and Justine Larblestier, both of whom have forged new ground in YA spec fiction (and not at all the same territory even though they are married). There’s also Christopher Barzak’s very emotional ghost story, One for the Sorrow and the Spiderwick series of books from Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi (about to be launched on the big screen) and all the work Charles de Lint has been doing in the urban fantasy realm for ages and on and on.

    It’s possible that Rowling has changed the model for future YA SFF publishing – in the minds of the “gatekeepers” like agents and publishers. There might very well be a Harry Potter type backlash where we see more books like hers than unlike them in the next few years. But I don’t think that will last long if it does happen and with authors like Westerfield remaining extremely popular and so different from Rowling, I think the genre will continue to grow and expand in ways that do not relate to Harry Potter mainia.

    What frustrates me about his article is that he is supporting a self-fulfilling prophecy with this – suggesting that you must be like Rowling to get published in the field today and thus ignoring all those who are not like her – and giving them the sort of publicity that frankly, Meiville and Gaiman don’t need (those guys do just fine as I’m sure you know). A better use of space would have been to acknowledge Rowling’s impact on the genre and then explore authors who are outside the Harry Potter box – showing that the genre is far bigger than one boy wizard.

  10. Let’s be honest, that clumsy Eli Manning comparison was pining for the same sort of relevance you accuse Itzkoff of with his Bruce Campbell reference. Congratulations, you watched the Super Bowl. Never mind that until these last four games, throughout his career Eli Manning had the “instincts” of a laconic walrus. Of course watching one game makes you an expert. But hey, anything to make you sound “relevant” and aware of the world beyond books.

  11. Fester: You got a name? Or do cowardice and assumptions come natural to an ill-informed and irony-dense trollish reprobate like you? At least Mike B. has the decency to articulate where he’s coming from when he’s going aggro here. I respect that, even though I think he’s completely wrong. He’s tenfold the man that you’ll ever be.

    I’ve been a Giants fan since the 1980s, pal. Nearly got my ass kicked in a Boston bar as a teen when I wore an Oakland A’s tee and craned into watch the playoff game. I drink pipsqueaks like you under the table. Just because I don’t write about sports all that often, that doesn’t mean I ain’t a sports fan. And as far as the Giants are concerned, I did indeed watch MORE than the Super Bowl this year.

    Because you’re such a coward and lack the cojones to sign your name, congratulations. You’ve just been banned. Don’t show your yellow face on my site until you’ve gone through rehab, Kerry Collins style, you pusillanimous sock puppet.

  12. Mike B.: Your point is reasonable — though I’m not convinced it was Itzkoff’s point, since he seemed to be just thrashing about for a controversial lede — but it’s not actually true. Anyone who follows fantasy for young readers, as Itzkoff clearly doesn’t, will have noticed that the current flood of YA fantasy is not primarily Potter knock-offs. (Oh, there are more than a few very obvious “magical training” stories, but they’re nowhere near the majority of the field.)

    So, if he was being literal, he’s wrong, and if he was being figurative, he’s also wrong. In both cases, his wrongness clearly stems from his ignorance of the things he’s writing about — and that’s why so many people are so regularly annoyed at Itzkoff: he does his job very badly.

  13. Well, let me say this about that. When Joan Didion wanted to take Bob Woodward to task for churning out yet another boring book (“The Choice”, 1996) here’s how she did it:

    “What seems most remarkable in this Woodward book is exactly what seemed remarkable in the previous Woodward books, each of which was presented as the insiders’ story and each of which went on to become a number-one bestseller: these are books in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent.”

    So that’s one way to go after it. The other way is to metaphorically go into a New York bar, Hunter Thompson style, and throw a bag of metaphorical lye into the faces of the punters – just to see what happens. You decide which approach is more entertaining, more effective.

  14. Neil Gaiman spoke about Itzkoff’s review on his blog:

    “It’s an odd review — I think that rule number one for book reviewers should probably be Don’t Spend The First Paragraph Slagging Off The Genre. Just don’t. Don’t start a review of romance books by saying that all romance books are rubbish but these are good (or just as bad as the rest). Don’t start a review of SF by saying that you hate all off-planet tales or things set in the future and you don’t like way SF writers do characters. Don’t start a review of a University Adultery novel by explaining that mostly books about English professors having panicky academic sex bore you to tears but. Just don’t. Any more than a restaurant reviewer would spend a paragraph explaining that she didn’t like Chinese food, or French, or barbeque normally… It just makes people think you’re not a very good reviewer.

    One can assume that if a reviewer is reviewing a book then it’s interesting enough to be reviewed. If you as a reviewer, begin by explaining why you don’t like a genre, then you put up the backs of everyone who does, and is interested, and probably would be reading your review in the first place. And you lay yourself open to the cardinal sin of dim reviewers, which is excusing something from a genre because it’s good.

    Just assume that horror, or YA, or whatever it is, deserves the attention you’re giving it, and then review it as best you can.”

    http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2008/02/102-pages-so-far.html

  15. Hi Mike B.

    I think your assertion that, “getting a YA novel published, especially a sci-fi/fantasy YA novel, one needs to write something in the style of Potter,” is mercifully wrong. One of the wonderfully peculiar qualities of the YA explosion we’re currently enjoying is the sheer multi-facetedness of it. As a first-hand example, I recently sold a YA SF novel about a cycling hermaphrodite that I’m pretty sure fits neither Rowling’s mold nor anyone else’s. And there was a bidding war for it. YA is wide open, like the teen minds it seeks to fertilize.

  16. You seem to have a great deal of pent up anger which is poorly covered over by a great number of $25 words. My guess is a frustrated author having a hard time being (re)published who has turned his anger towards free-media. But that is just my 2cents worth. And no there was no research done to back up this comment.

  17. It’s so funny how little difference lies between the way you have mercilessly attacked a New York Times book reviewer and the way potheads attack a YouTube video of a fat kid on a roller coaster. For all your intellectual posturing, you just hide behind the anonymous mask of the most perverse cousin of the citizen journalist: the mannerless misanthrope. Your attack has all the impact of a schoolyard bully’s. Rise above your tasteless pettiness and maybe your criticism would carry more weight. If you can’t do that, maybe you should blog about YouTube videos instead of polluting the world with your pseudo-intellectual vitriol. I hope that your valve isn’t closing up, Ignatius. Stop eating all the hot dogs, and maybe you’ll sell some.

  18. This coming from a man whose finest three minutes is an amateurish parody on YouTube called “Vagine.” I am not a misanthrope, and Dave Itzkoff is hardly “a fat kid on a roller coaster.” He’s a contributor for the New York Times. Aside from the recent 5% cutback, I doubt very much that the man is hurting. One therefore expects a certain expertise from the paper that purports to include “all the news that’s fit to print.” That it includes “articles” from an uneducated, uninformed, and unqualified specimen like Itzkoff among its pages makes his work all the more criminal, and criticisms all the more necessary.

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