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I remember the moment when I decided that Dale Peck didn't deserve my attention. At the end of a review of a Julian Barnes novel, he said that modern British writing was awful, and then spent a single paragraph naming various writers and insulting them. Ian McEwan's novels stink like old fish, etc. He didn't bother explaining to the reader why he thought this was so: he just made a list and said, these people are bad.
And in review after review, this is his favorite way of working. With the exception of his review of Rick Moody's The Black Veil, which is a legitimate dismantling of a bad book, Peck almost never goes into detail as to why a book isn't worth reading. He just throws around insults. There's nothing wrong with writing a vicious review, but back it up: quote examples, explain why the book is badly written, poorly constructed, unrealistic, anything. A responsible critic like James Wood takes the trouble to do this.
But all we get from Peck are strings of denunciations: "All I'm suggesting is that these writers (and their editors) see themselves as the heirs to a bankrupt tradition. A tradition that began with the diarrheic flow of words that is Ulysses; continued on through the incomprehensible ramblings of late Faulkner and the sterile inventions of Nabokov; and then burst into full, foul life in the ridiculous dithering of Barth and Hawkes and Gaddis, and the reductive cardboard constructions of Barthelme, and the word-by-word wasting of a talent as formidable as Pynchon's; and finally broke apart like a cracked sidewalk beneath the weight of the stupid--just plain stupid--tomes of DeLillo."
If you agree with Peck, then this isn't really illuminating; but if you don't - and think that, let's say, plenty of Barth is not "ridiculous dithering" - then this is useless to you, because Peck doesn't bother defending his claims. That these writers are awful strikes him as self-evident; all he needs to do is say it, and maybe with a writerly flourish, like the bit about a sidewalk cracking under the weight of someone's stupidity.
But clearly, since these writers are not already forgotten, their worthlessness is not self-evident. And if you want to take them apart you have to do it patiently, using analysis instead of playground taunts. BR Myers, for example, also wrote an article that was a rant against the state of modern writing, and went after both Moody and DeLillo, but he took the time to quote sections of prose, and slowly built up his case. It was clear that he had read their books carefully. One wouldn't even have to read the books in question to write some of Peck's reviews: just say "incomprehensible ramblings" and call it a day.
Peck delivers these insults with a great deal of passion, and appears to want to set himself up as some sort of conscience of literature, calling for a return to the authentic. But it's unclear just what he wants, especially when he produces lines like this: "But only after a work of literature has accepted its own failure--has, as it were, elegized its stillborn self--can it begin the complex series of contextual manipulations by which meaning is created and we locate ourselves as surely as the ancient navigators fixed their positions between stars."
Ah yes, that complex series of manipulations. I for one, unlike the ancient navigators, am having trouble locating myself in that sentence, but Peck would probably say that I am merely an idiot. He then goes on to say "Contemporary novels have either counterfeited reality or forfeited it. In their stead we need a new materialism." This is his positive program. Great: come on writers, get on that! Start working on that new materialism.
I don't think Peck is dishonest; he seems to mean these things that he says. He is merely lazy, and won't bother to tell us why he thinks so - and, more importantly, why we should think so too. Don't waste your time on him.
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Lionel Trilling once spoke, in his somewhat sententious way, of "the Moral Obligation to be Intelligent." This is worth pondering here, because much criticism gains its power from the coherent moral perspective that it offers. One thinks obviously of Trilling's own Cold War Liberalism, Eliot's Anglicanism, the many varieties of Marxism, Oscar Wilde's aesthetics, or the determined relativism of a Stanley Fish. So what is striking about this collection of mostly angry reviews by Dale Peck is the absence of any coherent philosophical or aesthetic perspective. Note that it is the absence of a coherent morality; not the absence of a moralism that could and frequently did disfigure Trilling, Leavis, Eliot, Chesterton and others. It is not that Peck is amoral or nihilistic. His angry comments on the world in his discussion of Rick Moody, his preference for a nuanced homosexual fiction, his criticisms of Julian Barnes and Philip Roth for misogyny reveal a certain left-liberal attitude. But unlike James Wood, Peck does not use literature as a way of illuminating moral questions. Rather this is a book by a promising young novelist which discusses why he dislikes other promising young novelists, such as Jim Crace, Colson Whitehead, David Foster Wallace, and (of course) Moody, as well as slightly more prominent Barnes, Jamaica Kincaid, and Stanley Crouch. Of the books in this review of the past decade's fiction only two, I think, are in any danger of being mistaken for being the best novels of their time: "Infinite Jest" and "American Pastoral." In other words there are no sacred cows here, and little sign of genius discovered.
Nor does Peck seem to have read widely. His references are largely to English literature, and even more so to American fiction. Perhaps the most lively line in this book is about Peck's miserable access to literature when he was growing up in darkest Kansas, where Taylor Caldwell is on the high school reading list, and where he thought Watership Down was the best book he read before going to university and he was right. Unfortunately Peck is not a particularly amusing writer, nor is he a terribly perceptive one. He has a caustic comment on Stanley Crouch ("just another demagogue in an age that confuses demagoguery with honesty") but his account does not really follow it up. Instead there is a criticism of the Emancipation Proclamation of questionable accuracy, a misreading of a metaphor which is based on Peck's ignorance that birds evolved from dinosaurs, and there are the kinds of sententious comments that he criticizes other authors for making ("Ralph Ellison was an individual; Stanley Crouch, his student, is not.")
Several times Peck criticizes authors for using mixed metaphors, but his own work is not immune from them. In the course of castigating Rick Moody, Peck argues that "the murder of innocents" is a redundancy. Clearly it is not, since it is perfectly possible to murder guilty or generally contemptible people. Elsewhere he blames the rise of genre fiction that inflicts "How Stella got Her Groove Back" on the "post-World War II critical establishment," who applaud positive moralistic fiction over "decadent" fiction. What is he talking about? Post-1945 can one imagine any Partisan Review contributor expressing such a preference. The tendency was the exact opposite, as one can see in Macdonald, Howe, Trilling, Rahv, Fielder, Baldwin, and so many others. At one point he dismisses Sven Birkerts as a geriatic twit, the sort of person who makes a fool himself mouthing rap lyrics but really prefers polkas. Then Peck undercuts himself by listing the writers Birkerts has championed: Musil, Mandelstam, Joseph Roth and several other worthy writers, and airily dismisses them. Now Mandelstam is one of the four or five greatest poets of the last century, and if Peck could write a book as deep as "The Radetsky March" or "The Man Without Qualities" or "Life: A User's Manual," reviewers would be ecstatic.
All this leads to Peck's disenchantment with the modern novel, where he argues that everything went downhill after the second half of "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." The geneology runs from "Ulysses" to later Faulkner and later Nabokov down to the experimental mush we have today. There are insulting comments about McEwan, DeLillo, and Franzen, but no real analysis. That's hardly suprising since Peck's geneology makes little sense. Everyone knows Faulkner is uneven and his later work is of finite value, while most people know how to keep the enthusiasts for "Ada" at bay. And to write an autopsy of American literature as if no American writer read Proust, Singer, Kafka, Garcia Marquez, Grass, Naipaul, Vargas Llosa or Appelfeld, while Bellow and Morrison are kept off stage is simply peculiar. Peck starts his book by boldly defending his right to be angry. But the problem with Peck is not that he is critical: it is that he takes easy targets and tries to bludgeon them with wiffle-bats.