The King of Splatter Crit Lays Down His Weapon

Hatchet Jobs: Cutting Through Contemporary Literature , by Dale Peck. The New Press, 228 pages, $23.95.

Dale Peck is not the best literary critic of his generation. He’s not even second-best. It’s also true that there are pitifully few writers in his generation who could plausibly be called literary critics (the rest just write book reviews)-so maybe I should more closely paraphrase his signature insult and say: Dale Peck is the worst literary critic of his generation. He’ll just have to live with the fact that the other half-dozen are better than he is.

Does the name ring a bell? Dale Peck (who’s 37, in case you’re wondering which cohort we’re dissing) is the guy who, a couple of years ago, called Rick Moody “the worst writer of his generation.” Mr. Moody (who’s 42, Mr. Peck’s rough coeval) is no such thing, but he did write a stunningly bad memoir, and Mr. Peck jumped all over it with both feet. (So did I, a couple of months before Mr. Peck: The Black Veil was an early and obvious contender for worst book of 2002.) Rick Moody wasn’t the first author trampled by Mr. Peck, nor was the Moody review much nastier than his review of Julian Barnes’ Love, Etc. or Jim Crace’s The Devil’s Larder-but I think it’s safe to say that Mr. Moody had to suffer so that Hatchet Jobs, a loose collection of a dozen critical essays, nearly all of them as cutting as the title implies, could glint in the light of day.

The sad part of this story is not the grievous bodily harm done to poor Mr. Moody, but rather Mr. Peck’s own self-inflicted wound. Because his reviews were so intemperate (“God knows I’ve never aspired to anything like impartiality”), and, yes, because he happens to be gay, he’s been dismissed as “bitchy”-”a troubled queen.” Too late, he’s decided never again to write a negative review: “[O]nce you’ve been labeled a certain kind of writer-in my case foolish, troubled, snarky, etc. … readers will approach anything you write looking for (and finding) evidence of precisely those traits.” This is the sad part: Mr. Peck is a genuinely talented writer, the kind you hope to meet whenever you open a book, the kind who can trick language into giving birth to human beings-characters you believe in and care about who inhabit a purpose-built, instantly credible fictional world. Of his three novels, the second, The Law of Enclosures (1996), is his best. And then there’s What We Lost: A Story of My Father’s Childhood, which is part fiction, part memoir and wholly compelling-a deeply compassionate account of a charmed year in his father’s otherwise brutal boyhood. Published last year, it was dismissed in a few conspicuously acerbic reviews, and disappeared.

Well, maybe that’s what you get when your hatchet jobs-screechingly negative by definition-are accompanied by stiletto asides. In passing, Mr. Peck calls Don DeLillo’s books “stupid-just plain stupid,” and declares that Ian McEwan’s books “smell worse than newspaper wrapped around old fish.” (Shall we give him the benefit of the doubt? That last slash came in early 2001, just before Mr. McEwan published Atonement, a more perfect novel than Mr. Peck, genuine talent and all, will ever write.) The most outrageous attack comes in the final paragraph of Mr. Peck’s essay on David Foster Wallace, where he suggests that it would be a good thing “if the author of Infinite Jest … shut off his goddamn word processor and tried to find someone who would passionately shove a dick up his ass.” (The essay was originally published “in slightly different form” in the London Review of Books; the advice on therapeutic sodomy is a late addition, available in book form only.)

I actually enjoy Mr. Peck’s hysterical, off-with-their-heads ad hominems, and I admire his talent for making fun of dopey passages in books he doesn’t like. His rage in the face of bad writing is authentic and implies a deep corresponding love of great writing. He’s also good at provoking the reader with grand pronouncements on the order of “So-and-so is the embodiment of everything wrong with the world of letters today”-assertions that promise a thorough reading of So-and-so supported by an encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary fiction. Missing from Hatchet Jobs, however, is the connective tissue that makes for a coherent essay. Consumed by his fury, Mr. Peck forgets to plot the argument that shows how the insults and the dissections of dopey passages link up with the many brazen generalizations which, huddled together, constitute his big-picture summary of the state of our literature.

When, for example, he calls Jim Crace “the Betty Crocker of contemporary novelists,” I laugh and begin to wonder whether I’m right to cherish Mr. Crace’s two best novels, Quarantine (1997) and Being Dead (1999). But then, when I get to the end of the same essay, I find Mr. Peck waxing philosophical: “Fiction doesn’t make meaning by reifying ideas, because you can’t reify something that doesn’t exist. Rather, it vests meaning in a series of contextual relationships: writer and reader, invented and actual, shapely narrative and shapeless history. Ultimately, fiction speaks to the narrativizing heart in all of us while gently admonishing that history has no such neatness, none of the inevitabilities of climax, resolution, and dénouement that religion or politics or art comforts us with.” I have no objection to the bouquet of notions that make up this mini-manifesto, but I am bothered by the fact that it perfectly describes Mr. Crace’s obsessive concerns. If Mr. Peck wants fiction that fits the bill, let him look again at Quarantine and Being Dead.

And what is the big picture, as Dale Peck sees it? He divides contemporary fiction into two camps and curses them both. He rails against “recidivist realists” and “recherché postmodernists” and complains that today’s novelists “have either counterfeited reality, or forfeited it.” Exciting stuff. I believe him when he writes, “my hands are literally shaking as I type”-after all, he’s calling for “[t]he excision from the canon, or at least the demotion in status, of most of Joyce, half of Faulkner and Nabokov, nearly all of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo, not to mention the general dumping of their contemporary heirs.” He’s full of passionate intensity, but there’s no rational argument to back up the invective and exhortation. (Well, you ask, what did I expect from a hatchet job?)

Mr. Peck is lazy and sloppy and not quite as cultured as he wishes, intermittently, to appear. In the midst of the Moody mauling, he breaks briefly into French: “Que sait-tu? one wants to say to the writer: What do you know?” My feeling is that if you’re going to provide a translation, you should also get the conjugation straight: It’s “Que sais-tu?” (Pertinent question, that: Though he’s Google-adept, as he proves when he’s playing “Gotcha!”, one does wonder what Mr. Peck knows.)

So now he says he’s laying down his red pen: “I will no longer write negative book reviews.” Does that mean that in the kinder, gentler reviews to come, he’ll at last tell us what we should be looking for as an alternative to recidivist realism and recherché postmodernism (both of which, in his exact opinion, “suck”)? He teases us, in Hatchet Jobs, with the notion that what we really need is “a new materialism,” but yes, you guessed it: He never says what that would look like. Maybe the “new materialism” is what Dale Peck does when he’s not wielding the hatchet.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.