Here's a recap of the conversation (slightly edited). L-Girl's stuff is in blockquotes:
I grew up on Isaac Asimov's science essays from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which are amazing examples of how to write about science for a general audience.
Asimov was a great writer, and a great writer can write about anything.
I often think this when I read great music writing, or food writing, or travel writing, or sports writing. The really best writers transcend the subject matter.
Asimov is one of my personal heroes, but I'm not sure if I'd call him a great writer in an absolute sense. His fiction is very strong on ideas, but weak on more writerly things like characterization. And he was much better in short story form than with novels.
That said, he was a great generalist writer, who could write clearly and intelligently on anything he put his mind to.
You know, I haven't read him since I'm a teenager, so for all I know I wouldn't consider him great now, either. This --
His fiction is very strong on ideas, but weak on more writerly things like characterization.
-- is something I don't like. I admire writers who are able to weave the ideas seamlessly into the story - no small trick.
Asimov's not someone I'd recommend to a reader who's interested in deep characterization or psychological introspection. Only a handful of Asimov's characters stand out from the rest of them: Susan Calvin and R. Daneel Olivaw are the only ones that come to mind at the moment. He's definitely an ideas writer (which is one of the reasons he works better in short stories than novels). But that's no surprise, when you remember that he learned his trade in the pulp magazines of the 1930s.
Asimov himself was very aware of where his strengths and weaknesses were, and generally structured his writing to use the former and avoid the latter. In one of his F&SF essays, he says (paraphrased): "some writers can create great, complex stained-glass windows with their language, beautiful to see. My writing is like a plate-glass window: you can't actually see the window, but you have a clear view of what it opens out onto."
I value that a lot in Asimov, and any non-fiction writer. Fiction writers can get away with a little more stained glass and still read as clear. :)
But Asimov's not someone I'd recommend to a reader who's interested in deep characterization or psychological introspection.
Right. By this description, I would probably stay away. Although it would be interesting (to me) to see if I liked Asimov now, after thinking he was a great writer when I was much younger.
"Idea writers" usually don't work for me. DeLillo is an example of an important writer who I simply cannot read. Just cannot. His work feels to me like a writing exercise instead of a novel.
Whereas Saul Bellow (for example) is very much writing about ideas, but the characters are memorable, and deep, and he plumbs the depth of human motivation. DeLillo doesn't have characters as far as I can tell.
"My writing is like a plate-glass window: you can't actually see the window, but you have a clear view of what it opens out onto."
This describes great non-fiction writing in general. The more transparent, the better.
Now to pick up the conversation from there.
One point I didn't address properly is L-Girl's comment about writers who can weave ideas into the story seamlessly. I realized when moving things over that I was reading that a little differently than (I think) she was intending.
My characterization of Asimov as an "ideas writer" wasn't meant to suggest that his ideas get in the way of the story or aren't blended seamlessly; rather, that the ideas are the story. Probalby one of the best examples of this is The Last Question (the entire text is online). Asimov's weakness as a character writer is minimized because character and personality are (usually!) incidental to the story. Asimov always knew that character development was a weakness of his, and wrote accordingly.
In any case, Asimov's primary interest in his fiction was not so much individuals, but societies. He saw science fiction as a way to explore how scientific discoveries could affect social evolution. The Robot and Foundation stories are prime examples of these -- how would the existence of quasi- or fully-sentient artificial life forms affect society's attitudes towards life? How would the development of a science which could predict the evolution of socities ("psychohistory") affect those societies? (Though, of course, in Foundation he introduces the character of The Mule, an individual whose actions cannot be accounted for by psychohistory.)
Other science fiction authors -- especially after 1960 -- moved into more individually-oriented writing, exploring science's effect on society by examining the effects on individuals, but Asimov stuck to his strengths.
As I mentioned above, Asimov's focus on ideas over characters is one of the reasons his short stories work much better than his novels do: it's much harder to sustain an "idea story" for 200 pages than it is for 20. Even his best-known novels, the original Foundation series, are actually collections of short stories rather than true novels.
And, of course, writing around ideas instead of characters stood him in good stead for his non-fiction writing. A lot of his science essays are now seriously out of date -- some of them are fifty years old! -- but even so, they serve as a standard that other popular science writers should strive for. He is inevitably crystal-clear in getting his point across, but engaging and personable in his conversational style. It's no wonder that he was in high demand for lectures! It's too bad that his hatred of flying kept him almost entirely restricted to the US north-east.