Can’t anybody just savor a metaphor anymore? This past weekend, John Leonard wrote a scathing takedown of Dale Peck’s volume of collected criticism, Hatchet Jobs , for The New York Times Book Review . In the piece, Mr. Leonard variously referred to Mr. Peck as a “hot dog,” a “vampire bat” and an “East German border guard.”
But Mr. Leonard’s inventive vigor, headlined “Smash-Mouth Criticism,” was overshadowed by more literal events: Among the essays in Mr. Peck’s book is one he wrote for The New Republic in 2000, savaging Stanley Crouch’s novel Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome (“No,” Mr. Peck concluded, ” … it doesn’t”). On July 13, Mr. Crouch crossed paths with Mr. Peck at Tartine and took the opportunity to, well ….
“He wasn’t smashed in the mouth, man, come on,” Mr. Crouch said when reached by telephone. “He was not punched.”
The not-a-punch (“I actually slapped him,” Mr. Crouch said) reportedly left a mark on the face of the younger but smaller Mr. Peck. Mr. Crouch remained unblemished, even figuratively.
“Figuratively” means that Mr. Crouch could have gotten something in return that affected him like a slap in the face, without Mr. Peck or anyone else actually hitting him. Somebody could have written something about Mr. Crouch’s behavior that hurt his feelings, for instance. Or somebody could have punished Mr. Crouch by not letting him write for a publication.
The press seems to be having a little trouble distinguishing between verbal and physical harm lately. Earlier this month, New York Post Page Six contributor Ian Spiegelman dashed off an e-mail to writer Douglas Dechert threatening to “push your face inside-out in private or public” and to see “how many times I can slam my fist into your face before someone pulls me off.”
Mr. Spiegelman’s note evoked David Mamet’s goofily mannered tough-guy syntax (“in my world you’re nothing but a two-bit lame”) more than the specter of real physical harm. But it got him swiftly dismissed from Page Six.
“The language and the tone of his e-mail are completely unacceptable to the New York Post ,” Post editor Col Allan explained in a statement issued through a spokesperson.
Moral: It’s not acceptable to threaten somebody with violence. Just skip ahead to the violence! Post political reporter Vince Morris, who got in an on-camera fracas with a TV cameraman in a Senate hearing room this month, is in the clear after sending his assailant sprawling. “Our reporter was defending himself,” Mr. Allan said through the spokesperson. “The tape speaks for itself.”
And Mr. Crouch, who writes a column for the Daily News , need not fear a pink slip, either. His status with the paper is unchanged since the incident with Mr. Peck, said Daily News spokeswoman Eileen Murphy. “He’s a freelance contractor,” Ms. Murphy said. “The Daily News isn’t going to comment on it.”
According to Mr. Crouch, calls and letters of congratulations have been flooding in, praising his non-verbal approach. “I knew this guy was disliked, but I had no idea how disliked,” he said. A dozen letters? Two dozen? “Somewhere in there, yeah,” Mr. Crouch said.
At one point in the conversation, Mr. Crouch excused himself to answer his call-waiting. “That was just another celebratory call,” he said when he clicked back. “They said, ‘Good job, good job! All praises due!’”
On Sunday night, when Mr. Crouch was a guest on Topic A with Tina Brown , his hostess teased him during the closing credits for being “naughty.” “You bitch-slapped Dale Peck?” Ms. Brown asked. Mr. Peck is homosexual; on the phone, Mr. Crouch emphasized that “bitch-slapped” is “a term I don’t approve of.” Ms. Brown did not return messages seeking comment.
But though he renounced Ms. Brown’s undertones, Mr. Crouch didn’t protest her main message on the air. Nor did the other guests on the show.
“Is he getting a pass?” said New York Times media reporter David Carr, one of Mr. Crouch’s fellow panelists on the show. “Yeah. He’s probably built up some equities over time.”
Mr. Crouch has also built up some fat lips and bruises on other people over time, having reportedly turned to blows on multiple occasions. But the quiet media consensus is that it’s better to assault people than to insult them, as Mr. Peck has done.
“Part of the reason that people aren’t rising to this guy’s defense is that he’s made his share of enemies over time,” Mr. Carr said of Mr. Peck.
New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, who published Mr. Peck’s review of Mr. Crouch’s novel, expressed disgust at the reaction to Mr. Crouch’s flare-up. Mr. Peck’s unpopularity, Mr. Wieseltier said, “makes it more necessary to be clear that what Stanley did is unacceptable.
“Hitting someone for something they’ve written represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the intellectual’s vocation,” Mr. Wieseltier said.
Mr. Carr said that he has no desire to see violence become “a motif of Manhattan publishing culture.”
“Michael’s would be uninhabitable,” he said.
And Mr. Crouch himself sought to play down the importance of the blow. “What happened between him and me is basically trivial,” he said.
“Frankly,” Mr. Crouch declared, “I think that whatever misbehavior-large or small, in the great past or the recent past of my life-I don’t think that’s going to stand up next to my writing.”
Why hit somebody, then? By turning the literary dispute into a physical one, Mr. Crouch was bowing to the power of words. As antagonists, Mr. Crouch and Mr. Peck share a similarity of outlook: In his review of Mr. Crouch’s novel, Mr. Peck declared that “the rightness or the wrongness of his evaluation always gives way to getting over, getting a rise, scoring points off his opponent.”
I know you are, but what am I ? Mr. Peck’s reviews, Mr. Crouch said, are “stepping stones to bring attention to himself,” and his primary critical message is “that he’s so much better than whoever it is he’s talking about.”
In a showdown between two competitive writers, taking a swing means you’re the loser. Mr. Wieseltier said that after Mr. Peck’s review ran in The New Republic , he offered Mr. Crouch-also a contributor to the magazine-”ample space” to write a rebuttal. “I knew that Dale’s piece would be very wounding,” Mr. Wieseltier said. “And I wanted to be fair.”
According to Mr. Wieseltier, Mr. Crouch repeatedly told him that the rebuttal was in the works. “Nothing materialized,” Mr. Wieseltier said. “Except this punch.”
Mr. Crouch seemed to be resigning himself to nonverbal combat. A few hours after an initial conversation about the incident, he called back to offer an inspiration: “I think in the future, altercations of this sort should lead to further action,” he said. “I think the two men should agree to meet in a specific place and throw pies at each other.”
What kind of pies?
“The kind they use in a silent movie,” Mr. Crouch said. “Mostly cream, I guess.”