Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

Critics Who Use a Newspaper for Bodily Functions Other than Information Input

Posted by hyperpat on December 27, 2006

The New York Times devoted an entire page to a review of John Scalzi this last Sunday. As written by Dave Itzkoff, I found it to be the epitome of everything I don’t like about critics. This response will be in two parts, the first being on the failings of this critic, the second on an accusation he makes within the review that I take extreme exception to.

In general, I find that far too many critics:

1. Can’t read

2. Can’t write

3. Can’t think.

4. Force their own pre-conceived notions onto what they are supposedly criticizing.

Mr. Itzkoff displays all these qualities in fine style here. Taking the second item first: This is supposed to be a review of Mr. Scalzi’s works. But the entire first half of this piece is taken up by a diatribe on the supposed failings of Robert Heinlein, with Scalzi not even mentioned till the fourth paragraph. Now Scalzi is known to have been influenced by Heinlein, but it might be noted that anyone who writes SF today has been influenced by Heinlein, whether they know it or not, and anyone who writes a military-oriented SF book is guaranteed to have some comparisons made to Starship Troopers. Now back when I took a few courses in writing, having an introductory paragraph to ease into the piece’s theme was fine, but backhandedly slipping in a review of Heinlein’s work in a piece that supposed to be about Scalzi, and then highlighting it by having it be the entire first half of the piece, is bad writing.

Now let’s look at the piece’s content when he does get around to discussing Scalzi. The first paragraph of this is reasonable, detailing the plot of Old Man’s War and drawing parallels with Starship Troopers. But in his next paragraph, Mr. Itzkoff shows his biases by attributing much of OMW’s commercial success to “recommendations from conservative political blogs like Instapundit and The Volokh Conspiracy”, ignoring the fact that word of this book was spread by a large contingent of SF fans, of all political stripes, and doesn’t even mention that it was nominated for the Hugo Award. The next paragraph sees the statement “Heinlein may have cultivated a philosophy that now seems distasteful bordering on appalling”. To whom is this philosophy appalling other than Mr. Itzkoff himself?

Then Mr. Itzkoff has the temerity to diss Scalzi’s latest novel, The Android’s Dream, because “there is still a position less commendable than having dangerous ideas, and that is having no position at all”, totally missing the fact that this book is meant to be a fun romp and not a political diatribe. Then he has even more chutzpah to insist that Scalzi get back to works like OMW and more political philosophizing, that The Android’s Dream was merely a detour for Scalzi’s career. All of this is a pretty good example of items 1, 3, & 4.

Now since Mr. Itzkoff has indicated he is at least somewhat familiar with Heinlein’s works, I would direct him to the last chapter of The Number of the Beast, where there was a special room set up just for critics. I think he belongs there.

Now any exposure in something with as much clout as the NYT is probably good for increasing sales of Scalzi’s books, even something as negative as this piece. I just wish the NYT would find someone else to review works in this genre.


8 Responses to “Critics Who Use a Newspaper for Bodily Functions Other than Information Input”

  1. imani said

    To stick up for poor literary critics it is unfair to use Itzkoff as an example of the rest: he’s not that bright and, according to most litbloggers who read sci fi, Itzkoff…clearly doesn’t read much sci fi.

  2. hyperpat said

    Perhaps it’s not fair, but then Mr. Itzkoff occupies a position that carries weight, and I think he needs to be taken down several pegs. Unfortunately, my own experience with other ‘literary’ critics indicates that he’s not unusual, and his displayed ignorance of the field is not only common, but nigh universal (perhaps I should have listed that as the fifth characteristic of critics). Authors have been complaining about this for a very long time – see some of Twain’s comments – and I doubt if it will change in the foreseeable future; tomorrow’s classrooms will still probably be dominated by such drivel. But at least today’s world allows other people to pipe up when they see something like this.

    Now to finish writing the other half of my rebuttal.

  3. imani said

    That’s the thing though–I think in Twain’s time there may have been more persons who were professional literary critics and he had the luxury to separate him and his ilk from critics and theirs. These days most reviews written in the newspapers and even journals are done by other authors. The literary world becomes more and more incestuous these days.

    My “unfair” comment was slightly cheeky. From what I’ve read single SF column Itzkoff has every done in the NYTBR has been awful to varying extents. It probably exhibits what sort of respect NYT holds for sci fi and other such genre fiction (i.e. none, except for mystery perhaps).

    I find the criticism in literary journals to be quite excellent in general, largely due to the fact that the writers actually get a decent word count. This doesn’t mean that I always agree with them but their position, more often that not, is supported reasonably.

  4. Antibush said

    Bush is forever saying that democracies do not invade other countries and start wars. Well, he did just that. He invaded Iraq, started a war, and killed people. What do you think? How does that work in a democracy again? How does being more threatening make us more likeable?Isn’t the country with
    the most weapons the biggest threat to the rest of the world? When one country is the biggest threat to the rest of the world, isn’t that likely to be the most hated country?
    What happened to us, people? When did we become such lemmings?
    We have lost friends and influenced no one. No wonder most of the world thinks we suck. Thanks to what george bush has done to our country during the past three years, we do!

  5. hyperpat said

    Antibush: Rants like this posted against a topic that has no relation to your rant does not endear your readers towards your outlook, regardless of their own political leanings.

    You might note that most of the rest of the world thought the US ‘sucked’ long before Bush took office. Blaming all our ills on his actions smacks of a mind with little education in history or the ability to argue logically.

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  8. Great article. I’m dealing with some of these issues as well..

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