Monday, March 20, 2006

This Bottle of Stephen's Awakens Ancient Feelings

If you're sick of the whole Itzkoff teapot tempest (and it would be hard to blame you if you are), skip this post. I'm late on this one, but I'm feeling crotchety. If you don't know what I'm talking about, here's a primer: Karen Joy Fowler on Octavia Butler (stupid Salon commercial view required). Michael Schaub takes offense to KJF's minor mention of Dave Itzkoff. Meghan cluesticks Schaub (doubt it'll take). The Itzkoff pieces in question (so far, anyway): One, two. And now, you're all caught up.

So, yeah. When I first read Schaub's response to KJF, I was fighting mad. And no, it's not the first time he's pissed me off with his casual contempt. On the other hand, I read Bookslut--particularly the blog--regularly, and while I'm more often ticked off by the tone of Schaub's postings than by Jessa Crispin's, I'm not annoyed enough to stop reading.

But I am annoyed, and now that I've cooled down, I'll tell you why. Aside from the warrantless snarking at KJF, there were a couple of quotes that really got up my nose. This one:

[A]t least Fowler is way more calm and measured about the situation than most of Itzkoff's critics on the blog circuit, many of whom are reacting to the list [that would be One, above] (of personal favorites, remember) with almost comical levels of unfettered geek rage.

And this one:

I guess the SF world is a lot more contentious than I thought.

(Parenthetically (hence the parentheses), I don't give a shit about this--

But there's one thing I think we can all agree on: Science fiction is not real literature, and everyone who enjoys it is a virgin. (Kidding! Kidding! I swear.)

--because this is clearly Schaub's way of pre-emptively deflecting any criticism as simply a matter of folks not being able to take a joke.)

OK, but back to the geek rage. Leaving aside the fact that I can't imagine KJF being other than calm and measured (this is exactly what makes some of her short fiction so harrowing, BTW . . . the calm and measured way in which she emotionally eviscerates her characters), and the nasty dismissive phrase "unfettered geek rage," what upsets me about that quote is the framing of it. Speaking objectively, Itzkoff, whatever his other qualifications, simply doesn't have geek cred. His history includes stints at Maxim and Spin (and he sounds like it). No, I'm not saying there's something wrong with that. But.

There's sort of an anthropological condescension at work here. We are, as Schaub so tactlessly reminds us, a subculture. Itzkoff is, for most of us, an unknown quantity. He's not one of us. And yet, he's been brought on by one of the nation's leading periodicals to comment on us. To observe us. Which he does, first, by lamenting that we are not cool enough to hang with. "Why does contemporary science fiction have to be so geeky?" he asks.

Dave--my name-brother--if you're too embarrassed to be reading us on the train, are you too embarrassed to be the Times' SF reviewer? 'Cause I can think of a dozen people off the top of my head who are more qualified to mediate between the lit-insiders and the outsiders that you like to tell us we are. I don't, incidentally, believe that this is strictly true nowadays. But folks like you and Michael are the reason it's true at all. You don't seem to be immersed enough to grok what SF is about, that it's gone through some changes since the 1960's, that it's not just white guys writing it nowadays (if it ever was). You're skimming the surface, brother, and if you were anyone but an SF reviewer, that would be just fine. But you are an SF reviewer, even if you don't like to talk about it at parties. It's time to step up your game and broaden your reading.

Back to Schaub. "I guess the SF world is a lot more contentious than I thought," he says, and I can't think of a more dismissive way to refer to a subculture. It approaches a colonial level of condescension. "You mean those little people have opinions?" Why, f*&% you very much, Michael, yes we do. We have discourse. We have arguments. Really, it's almost a mark of respect to Itzkoff that he's been dogpiled on, because we do it to our own all the time. It's one of our quaint little rituals; when someone says something stupid, we like to call them on it. Your ignorance of these cultural norms suggests that you are not qualified to comment on these rituals anymore than is your friend Dave. (You are friends, aren't you? I mean, I can't figure out why you'd just flip out and machine-gun a bunch of phantom geek bloggers (please point to an instance of unfettered geek rage) like that unless you've got your back up about a friend of yours. Or maybe you just think the geeks should know their place?)

There's a Viking proverb: "No man is a fool if he keeps silence." And if this were a Saturday night con party and we were all getting drunk and talking shit, we could just tell these guys to shut up, or ignore them. But this is not the case. Bookslut and The New York Times aren't going away. The way we are presented by Itzkoff, and to a lesser degree by Schaub, affects how we are viewed. It affects the attitudes of readers and publishers. It keeps us in the geek box.

I doubt very much that Schaub cares enough to educate himself out of his assumptions. Luckily, there are others at Bookslut, including Ms. Crispin, who are more friendly towards SF. As for Itzkoff, despite his inauspicious beginnings, it's early yet. We know where he's coming from, at least. Perhaps he will reveal himself to be more nuanced in his opinions than we've seen so far; perhaps he will learn. If not, perhaps next time the Times will not make such an extraordinary effort to find a reviewer whose primary credential is that Phil Dick makes him go all whoa.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dave--my name-brother--if you're too embarrassed to be reading us on the train, are you too embarrassed to be the Times' SF reviewer?


Excellent points. Really excellent.

I vote you send this or some variation thereof in letter-of-editor form.

- H

7:08 AM  
Blogger haddayr said...

What a smart, careful, angry and appropriate post.

You've got brains, buddy.

I agree with Hannah that this should go somewhere more public, too. What about submitting it to SH?

Or would they think it's already published?

10:31 AM  
Anonymous SarahP said...

Very well said.

Did you catch Ginger Clark's letter to the editor in this week's NYTimes book review? Very measured, clear response.

8:38 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Sarah, I didn't see it; was it only in the print version, or do you perhaps have a link?

9:54 AM  
Anonymous SarahP said...

Dunno if there's a link. It was in my Sunday real-live paper.

8:52 AM  

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