It’s taken as a given that the litblogosphere has it in for Sam Tanenhaus and the New York Times Book Review, with this blog counted among the critics, but I like to think that the ‘Cat has been supportive, albeit in a rather tough-love mode, of the changes Tanenhaus has executed in nearly three years on the job. I’m not convinced he’s getting everything done in a timely fashion, and the “news about the culture” approach has its downsides, but you can’t deny that he’s made the Review lively, he’s done a decent job with literary fiction (particularly trade paperback originals), and he’s brought some fresh new voices in to give fields like poetry and comics serious and signficant coverage. But nestled among such successes is a columnist whose faults have become more glaring with each new effort—science-fiction reviewer Dave Itzkoff.
(Now, we might as well lay all our cards out on the table: Itzkoff has had his nose bent out of shape with this blog because he believes I sandbagged him when I wrote about his debut for PW last spring, which frankly is ironic since that article contained more positive feedback than just about any other reactions to his work. We stopped mentioning him by name after we became tired of receiving snotty emails every time we did. But constantly going on about “the reviewer” and “the columnist” would get silly, so I’ll break the tradition this once. You should also know that I’m friendly with John Scalzi, the subject of today’s NYTBR sci-fi essay, but you’ll have to take it on faith that I’d think Itzkoff’s review stinks even if I didn’t know Scalzi at all.)
Let’s look at an early line in Itzkoff’s review of John Scalzi’s works, considering the legacy of science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein:
“I have no reason to doubt that the old master’s classic novels Stranger in a Strange Land and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls are still as good as I remember them… But Heinlein’s military sci-fi, particularly the book that practically invented the genre, Starship Troopers, has not aged well, to put it mildly.”
Setting aside the fact that I just reread Starship Troopers over the weekend, and it has aged quite well apart from a few bits of cornball dialogue, thank you very much, there are three plausible explanations for how such a boneheaded statement as calling The Cat Who Walks Through Walls a classic could be published in one of the nation’s leading literary reviews. We can rule out the possibility that Itzkoff is making a poorly executed attempt at irony; if that were the case, he wouldn’t pair it up with Stranger in a Strange Land, which has its problems but holds up reasonably well. We can also rule out the idea that he’s being deliberately snide—as poor a reviewer as he is, one ought to presume he’s acting in good faith. That leaves just one option: He really thinks Cat was as good as he professes to remember, and that (non-sci-fi fans will have to trust me on this) means his taste simply cannot be trusted.