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Wanted: Savvy Sci-Fi Critic for NYTBR, Pt. 2

It’s been a little over a year since I openly called upon NY Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus to replace sci-fi critic Dave Itzkoff at the first opportunity, and, well, I clearly don’t have Tanenhaus’s ear, because yesterday Itzkoff was back once again, making his stupidest critical assertion yet:

“I sometimes wonder how any self-respecting author of speculative fiction can find fulfillment in writing novels for young readers… Where’s the artistic satisfaction? Where’s the dignity?”

I’m not the only one who thinks that statement shows Itzkoff’s inadequacies as a serious book reviewer, let alone a columnist for what’s supposed to be the premier newspaper book review section in America. “Itzkoff’s offhand slam against the entire YA genre made me nearly spit coffee,” said Matthew Cody. Gwenda Bond questions Itzkoff’s knowledge of YA speculative fiction, and his qualifications to make such a sweeping generalization, while Andrew Wheeler points out how slow he is, observing that both of the books he reviewed—China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun and Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves InterWorld—were published before his last real “Across the Universe” review seven months ago. (In fairness, though, Itzkoff wrote two reviews in the intervening period that could have been tagged for the column, but weren’t.)

Other readers have raised the possibility that Itzkoff is only pretending to be as thickheaded as that opening line makes him sound, setting up a patently stupid rhetorical argument in order to smack it down over the course of his article, and one might cite his admiring tone towards Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl as evidence. That doesn’t actually help his cause much, though; instead of coming off as critically oblivious, such a strategy would just paint him as a sloppy, lazy writer. It’d also be the first time I’d ever seen a book reviewer set himself up as a straw man…

This lede (and I didn’t even quote the stockpiled pop culture allusions intended to demonstrate Itzkoff’s with-it-ness) would be barely acceptable from somebody cranking out full-length columns for the Review every other week; someone whose contributions in 2007 consist of just five full-length reviews, a few one-paragraph capsules, and a ridiculous pairing of political candidates with sci-fi novels should have no excuse not to come up with better. Certainly not when Terrence Rafferty is handling horror fiction with the genuine perceptive acuity, absent of rhetorical crutches, science fiction and fantasy deserve from the Times. I’ve noted in the past that Itzkoff’s best work for the NYTBR was the one where he reported rather than reviewed, and I stand by that: By all means, let him contribute essays as good as his articles for the Times art section, even author profiles if that’s what it takes. Just not the reviews.

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