Ten or more disappointing novels arrive at my door every week. So while I disagree with at least half of Dale Peck’s literary criticism, I’ve come to believe that vituperative attacks on contemporary fiction may be one way to slow the march of crap to our bookstore shelves.
Still, given the choice between Peck’s criticism and James Wood’s, I’d choose the latter. Like Peck’s, Wood’s critiques are candid and sometimes withering. But when Wood condemns it feels considered rather than flip. When Wood condemns, it stays with you.
Peck’s the guy at the cocktail party making grand pronouncements, trying on controversial theories. He’s clever and funny and wants you to argue with him. Maybe you like him, maybe you hate him. He doesn’t care, provided you’ll stay in the debate.
Wood’s the quiet guy in the corner. He’s silent for most of the night, until he’s sized everyone up. Then he plows into the discussion like a rush-hour pile-up, surprising everybody. His arguments are so clear and seem so logical that even if you disagree you need a full night’s sleep before you feel you can unpack them.
Everybody’s got something to say about Dale Peck these days. For one Denver Post reviewer, Peck is the personification of a Bad Literary Critic:
If it were up to me, I would have every apprentice reviewer read Peck as an example of what to avoid.
Reviewing is an important craft, and good criticism is a way of enjoying literature more completely. Still, reviewers should keep in mind the famous comment by the late Randall Jarrell to the effect that criticism is like a telescope: It allows the viewer to see the stars, but it can never be the stars. Academic critics already have discarded this notion in making themselves the point of their literary essays, and intellectual wannabes like Peck aren’t far behind.
But George Garrett, in the Washington Post Book World, eats Peck’s criticism up:
Hatchet Jobs is a series of 12 exemplary variations on the literary critic as hit man. The reader can share the fun and games, witnessing the rare bravado of a critic who is uniformly interesting and evidently fearless — he takes on semi-sacred cows like Sven Birkerts and David Foster Wallace, Stanley Crouch and Julian Barnes. (Better him than us.) He is unbowed before the power and the glory of established reputations. Thus the sentence that two years ago made Peck famous in certain literary circles: “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.” Or this, a one-line summary judgment of the art of Ian McEwan: “The man’s books smell worse than newspaper wrapped around old fish.” Peck comes on strong, less like a genteel gatekeeper than a berserk middle linebacker, knocking highly regarded heads together. But his chief concern, after gaining attention with a solid smack upside the head, is making a thoughtful and appreciative case for better fiction than we have been getting from our official crew of best and brightest contemporaries. On Moody, for example, Peck’s contempt is at least modified: “I went into this review thinking Moody was a faker, a poser. Shooting him off his plinth, I thought, would be easier than shooting fish in a barrel. But whatever else he is, he’s the genuine article . . . a real writer.”
The writers of both these books are novelists, and the writing is alive, crackling and sparkling with electric energy. Wood, a senior editor at the New Republic and an Englishman, works within the graceful boundaries of the well-turned, well-schooled sentence, as here (out of context, of course) in his superb piece “Henry Green’s England”: “Just as art often forces characters into unnatural presentation, so it forces itself into shapely presentations of one kind or another — and these artificialities, too, Green sought to annul, by creating an art of disheveled purpose.” Allusive and aphoristic, Peck’s style is classic American, a jivey mix of rhetoric and spontaneity: “When I think a book has let me down I get angry with it, and when I think that book has deceived me I get pissed off.” “Think Ray Carver, Lorrie Moore, the Brat Pack — and how awful does most of that shit seem now?” Peck is a master of the surprising simile, as in: “Birkerts trots out all his allusions and factlets and trivia, regardless of accuracy, relevance, or extraneousness, with the tinkling insistence of a five-year-old learning to play ‘Chopsticks.’ With each rendition he bangs harder and louder, as if to conceal the fact that he doesn’t know how to play anything else.” Or on the subject of Julian Barnes: “This is relatively harmless drivel, but it doesn’t explain why Barnes’ writing crawls under your skin and itches like scabies.” Even readers turned off by this kind of thing will have to admit that it is refreshing to read critical prose that is close to jargon-free.
Allowing for superficial differences, these two books seem to be working the territory together, Wood covering (mostly) the near past of the modern novel, Peck playing defense against his flashy contemporaries.