Dave Itzkoff: Well, Crash Courses Are Better Than Glossing Over White Males

It took a little more than three months for Dave Itzkoff to write his second science fiction column (or perhaps the more accurate answer here is that it took that long for Sam Tanenhaus to figure out that the field was a little more substantial than geeks writing stories). This column is slightly better, if only for its mention of the underrated writer Ellen Klages, whose work is often published in the underrated The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (where I first encountered her). But I must inform Mr. Itzkoff of the following realities:

1. Sorry, Dave, but Christopher Rowe is already taken. The marriage, as I understand it, is a healthy one. But what a way to suck up! You even quoted Matt Cheney! So hipster points and a crash course bonus for you! Now if only we can get you lusting after someone who isn’t attached or, better yet, convince you to engage in a dialogue with those who do know something about the subject but who don’t need to flaunt their knowledge like a smug Department of Defense official in the Johnson administration who thinks he knows more about Vietnam than those who are actually there. Who knows, Davie boy? Your column might be worth something more than a man declaring how much he cares about the reactions.

2. Dave, baby, you’re going to have to think outside the pop cultural box. These “intimations of juvenilia” that you think speculative fiction is all about are among the major reasons why we criticized you in the first place. Not only has the genre moved well beyond “juvenilia,” but a “cookie monster” isn’t always what it seems.

3. “Rosenbaum’s imagery will surely embed itself in the invisible architecture of your own memory banks for days after you’ve read it. But when you approach it for the first time, just try to forget that you’ve already been told how it ends.” So this is how Tanenhaus wants you to cover speculative fiction, Dave? Look, I’m nowhere nearly as schooled as my peers, but even I know something about the subject and wouldn’t dare to propose the silly and dismissive phrase “invisible architecture of your own memory banks.” Why, I’d be remiss and downright philistine if I actually declared myself a cultural arbiter on such flimsy pretext. So you read a Nebula anthology and you’re an expert now? Well golly! I mean, can I pin a boutinaire to your lapel, declare myself as your godfather, and send you a gift certificate to Tony Roma’s? There’s some good eatings there, I do declare!

4. Lastly, what can we do to get you and Ron Hogan to kiss and make up? Or does this “I write for the NYTBR now” schtick mean that you won’t talk with the plebs?


  1. …Well, I guess once again I’m out of step with lots of others because I think that Itzkoff geek column is correct overall. I wrote on my blog that reading it felt like he had been channeling me.

    I think that if “genre communities” want a wider readership, they should listen to criticisms from people who don’t regularly read those genres. But too often those communities don’t listen. And then they complain when they don’t get enough respect outside the genre, and when interest and sales are too low.

  2. Fran: I don’t think you’re necessarily out of step. It is precisely this geek rap that speculative fiction gets which is the problem. Are not all books geekish to some degree? Do you not recall perhaps your first flirtation with a difficult tome, pondering the distance between the terminology expressed within the prose and your own ability to grasp it?

    The point I’m trying to make is that the literary climate is often too reactionary to view a more “exotic” genre as anything more substantial than “aliens and spaceships” or technical babble. While I have certainly witnessed the insular geek culture you’re describing, I suspect that it cuts more the other way (i.e., genre dismissed by an ignorant snob as “juvenile” without the snob in question actually reading it).

  3. I think I’m reconciling myself to the fact that this column is not for those of us who are in or follow closely “the field” of SFF, but for people who maybe read a fantasy novel every now and then or who used to read it but don’t anymore. And maybe that’s okay. It’s hard for me not to think it’s a good thing to have someone writing about SFF for those people — the field needs new readers pretty desperately. And I imagine a lot of what people who dip a toe in encounter is geeky or clubby or hard to grasp. Which is not, of course, to say that we shouldn’t keep reading it and calling out what needs to be for further examination.

    In a perfect world, of course, the column would appeal equally to both these groups but for different reasons … but this is a Tanenhaus World and we just live in it. (insert smiley here)

    At any rate, I was happy to see an actual book review, especially one focusing on short fiction, which is one of the genre’s oft-overlooked strong points. (And, yes, I mean this separate and apart from Mr. Gwenda’s story being praised!) And imo this kind of anthology is actually a pretty good, accessible way for the type of readers I think this column is aimed at to (re)access the genre.

    Will. Stop. Now.

  4. “The point I’m trying to make is that the literary climate is often too reactionary to view a more “exotic” genre as anything more substantial than “aliens and spaceships” or technical babble….genre dismissed by an ignorant snob as “juvenile” without the snob in question actually reading it”

    –Yes, I definitely agree. I had mentioned the same thing in my blog post. About half the stuff I write is science/fantasy fiction, so the quick dismissals from the “literary community” irritate me too on a more personal level.

    I’m usually floating somewhere in the middle of the debate, but maybe I just lean more toward what Itzkoff has described because I’ve had so much difficulty finding modern sci-fi I really like. I’ve been reading fantastical stories since childhood and wish there were more for me to read today. I’m easily disappointed in that genre, maybe more so than other genres probably because I have a bit of experience in real science.

  5. Geez, Ed, are you TRYING to get me on the front page of Gawker? Because Sarah and I could really use the traffic that would bring!

  6. Also, to be fair to Itzkoff, three months is only slightly longer than it usually takes David Orr to get from one installment of the poetry column to the next, and only HALF the time that Tanenhaus has decreed must pass between John Hodgman’s wonderful contributions on the subject of comics.

    Sure, Marilyn Stasio gets to post with greater frequency, but mysteries have always been the approved slumming literary material of the upper classes, at least as far back as Edmund Wilson railed against Agatha Christie and her ilk in the pages of the New Yorker.

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