Saturday, February 02, 2008

A Momentous Occasion

Rejoice! For we now know of another category of books on which Dave Itzkoff will pontificate without any real knowledge!

This week's New York Times Book Review sees the belated return of Itzkoff's "Across the Universe Column" -- last seen in the December 16th issue with a puff piece about presidential candidates -- with his first actual review in that space since July 24th. And what has he been doing with his reading time since then? Surely he's embarked on some major project -- perhaps reading the entire "Wheel of Time" saga or preparing to weigh in on the recent reissue of Dhalgren? No, sadly, this is not the case.

Itzkoff has read two short and breezy Young Adult novels, both of which were actually published before he filed that July 24th column. (Un Lun Dun, China Mievile's flawed but interesting first YA novel, was published in February of 2007 and has just been released in paperback, and InterWorld, a basically generic entertainment by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves, was published in late June.)

But wait! Not content to read YA books, Itzkoff feels the need to trash the entire idea of writing for young readers in his first paragraph:
As someone whose subway rides tend to resemble scenes from an “Evil Dead” movie, in which I am Bruce Campbell dodging zombies who have had all traces of their humanity sucked out of them by a sinister book — not the “Necronomicon,” but “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” — I sometimes wonder how any self-respecting author of speculative fiction can find fulfillment in writing novels for young readers. I suppose J. K. Rowling could give me 1.12 billion reasons in favor of it: get your formula just right and you can enjoy worldwide sales, film and television options, vibrating-toy-broom licensing fees, Chinese-language bootlegs of your work, a kind of limited immortality (L. Frank Baum who?) and — finally — genuine grown-up readers. But where’s the artistic satisfaction? Where’s the dignity?
I'm sure one of the many fine writers of books for people not yet adult -- perhaps Justine Larbalestier or Tamora Pierce, to name only two who are also bloggers -- will heap the appropriate load of scorn on Itzkoff's utterly wrong and bizarre premise, so I'm content just to point and laugh. Look at the funny monkey! He thinks he has a clue what he's talking about! Caper, funny little monkey!

It's disappointing, after such a promising start, to find that Itzkoff's actual critical points are thinner and less incendiary. He liked Un Lun Dun, as I did, and so gives it mild praise. (Along the way, he's completely forgotten his lede, because he approvingly mentions Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl -- two fine writers now entirely remembered for their great books for young readers. Typical of Itzkoff to overlook the fact that he slagged them, and their entire field of literature, at the top of his review.)

He's less positive towards Interworld, which is a lesser book. (It was originally planned as a screenplay, and that origin is apparent -- it's an entertaining adventure story for boys with some subtext about identity, but not much more.)

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.


Chris Roberson said...

What amazes me is the way the review seems to suggest that Itzkoff isn't really familiar with Mieville's work. I mean, are most readers really going to be familiar with China because of King Rat, or would they maybe have read, oh, I don't know, Perdido Street Station, perhaps? It seems a strange omission, especially since citing any of the New Cobruzon novels would have made his point about the strangeness of China's "adult" work much better.

Of course, those are all pretty long books, so it's easy to see where Itzkoff wouldn't have found the time...

What a tool.

Brad Holden said...

I like the idea that he had a couple of extra column inches to fill. That first paragraph is really odd when compared to the rest of the review.

Anonymous said...

Maybe he's hanging on to Clute.

Aaron Hughes said...

In fairness, when he first started his column Itzkoff disclosed, "I don't pretend to be completely versed in MiƩville's work." That was less than two years ago. Do you expect him to have read Perdido Street Station and The Scar already? Just how much time do you think the guy spends on the can?

Joel said...

Very nice analysis! I agree with your statement about extra column inches.

It's just poor writing for Itzkoff to undermine his generalization in the rest of his piece.

Mike said...

I don't get the feeling that Itzkoff is railing against YA publishing at all. He mentions L. Frank Baum not dismissively. And I think that's also why he mentions Carroll and Dahl. It's not that he has "completely forgotten his lede" -- I think he's arguing that in a post-Rowling world of YA lit, it's difficult for good stuff to get notice unless it follows the Rowling recipe.

Anonymous said...

When there are so many good critics of science fiction, fantasy and horror out there writing, it continues to amaze me that as august a periodical as The New York Times can't find one of them to write a decent column every now and then, and instead sticks with Itzkoff. I just don't get it.

Oh, and NYT, if you're reading this: I'm available.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Mike: You're much more forgiving of Itzkoff than I think is warranted; remember that he wrote "I sometimes wonder how any self-respecting author of speculative fiction can find fulfillment in writing novels for young readers." That's a very broad brush he's painting with; he doesn't think any author with any self-respect can be happy writing spec-fic for anyone not an adult.

Even with your more forgiving take, he's still an idiot, since there has been an explosion of YA fantasy over the past five years, and most of it is nothing like Rowling. Quite a bit of it is actually quite good, too.

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