Critic vs. critic

Readers respond to a story about Dale Peck's attack on Rick Moody and what makes for good criticism. Plus: "Snobbery" author's homophobic past.

Topics: Books,

[Read "Pecked."]

Thanks for the news about Dale Peck and Rick Moody. Since I live in California, I had no idea that this was going on. But my home insurer (the Hartford, based on the East Coast) was clearly reacting when it denied me personal injury coverage “due to homeowner’s profession as self-employed writer.” Who says literary conflicts don’t have real-world consequences?

– Jane Smiley

Heather Caldwell writes that Dale Peck claimed when he sent a positive review to a London periodical, the publication quit assigning him reviews. Seems to me the periodical editors are acting irresponsibly here by wanting to publish only reviews that generate angry backlash. This would erase the critic’s credibility, since readers would quickly realize that certain critics — Peck in particular — have nothing good to say ever about anyone. The next thought is, “Why bother reading him, then?” A critic that only cries “Wolf!” will come to be ignored by anyone serious about literature.

– Jeff Rice

I am 99 percent with Mr. Peck. As a disillusioned refugee from academia, I’m glad to hear someone state vigorously that high postmodernists are, frankly, full of shit.

Thomas Pynchon seemed headed toward this point in “The Crying of Lot 49″ with the psycho-self-destruction of Mucho Maas, but, as Peck implies, Pynchon, like Mucho, kept heading down the “rooms and endless rooms of the elaborate candy house of himself,” not taking the self-destructive idea any further than suited him.

Years spent in English departments convinced me that, with few exceptions, these departments produce writers who can charm other English departments (Don DeLillo being Exhibit A), but the fundamental flaw made by most, though not all, who dedicate their lives to literature seems obvious: Life should not be about books; books should be about life.

– Adam Remsen

It’s a symptom of the inbred, cloistered world of High Literature (a club that authors mock while queuing to get in) that so many folks should get so worked up over something as incidental and innocuous as a Bad Review (or a habitual Bad Reviewer). Criticism isn’t an objective science, kids, and arguing that it should be more impartial just reveals an ignorance of this.

With the dignity of cheerleaders spreading gossip after gym class, the critics Ms. Caldwell describes appear desperate for relevance, any sort of relevance, while readers are turning to livelier art and entertainment forms like movies and the Internet. As F.T. Marinetti said, “Life is always right” (but not, ha ha, always “write”).

And ultimately — after all this reputation assassination and standard bearing in the name of Old School or New Cool or whatever — no critical huffing and puffing helps one word in one book get written any better. The ship is sinking, fellas, and you’re arguing for good seats on the Aloha Deck.

– Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum

I’ve read two other similar articles about Dale Peck’s honest and clear-eyed assessment of Rick Moody’s work. All of them, including this one here in Salon, got into a thoughtless tizzy. “How could Dale Peck be so mean?” they ask. None addressed the fact that he’s right. Rick Moody sucks. Peck cites example after example of exactly how Moody sucks. Were it not for Ang Lee’s masterly film rendering of “The Ice Storm,” Moody would have no career to speak of because no one actually reads Moody’s books. They manage, “The Ice Storm” included, to become instant classics in the Mark Twain sense of the word. That is, they are books people talk about but don’t read.

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– John Petrocelli

Although she leaves it largely to others to word the accusations, Heather Caldwell is happy to quote and frame Dale Peck’s review as the product of ignobility. She flits from one innuendo to another: Peck is “a troubled queen,” self-serving (“present[ing] himself as … a crusader … a vigilante … a moralizing parent”) and petty (engaged in “grotty, little pissing matches like this one”). The review was written either because of a personal agenda or a false sense of the “importance of the subject and of himself.”

Happily unchallenged rest the negative assertions of those she quotes. Andrew Solomon’s claim that Peck “refus[es] to recognize any of Rick Moody’s strengths” is blindly accepted, ignoring Peck’s comment that, “He [Moody] has a true writer’s sensibility. His stories have the heft and shape of cultural narratives.” Or that “there is always a moment in each one of them when I get mad at myself for hating them [Moody's books].” To buttress some insinuations, Caldwell is careful in the selecting of her facts. “Of all the famous American writers Peck so notoriously insults, none are women, or gay,” she notes. Jeannette Winterson is both. Ah … but she’s not American, and hence the qualifier.

I’m left wondering who’s attempting a hatchet job. The question of whether Peck brings up valid points in his review must remain unanswered, by Caldwell at least. That’s not what she’s interested in doing.

– David Doern

I applaud Peck’s criticism of Moody and other pretentious boring writers. A person in the article noted that Moody has no significance in middle-class households — this is true, but the reason is, most critically acclaimed writers suck. Their stories are overly written tales of NOTHING. Nothing happens in these stories, forcing the reader to plow through thousands of words of NOTHING. These authors commit the biggest crime an artist can ever commit and that is the crime of being boring.

I constantly hear the publishing world lament about plunging book sales — they have no one to blame but themselves for their publishing choices. News flash — books are entertainment too.

– Lemise Rory

[Read a review of "Snobbery."]

Although Joseph Epstein makes no references to his earlier views in his latest book, his decision to include Marcel Proust, Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde among the “chefs de snobisme” suggests that he has come a very long way indeed from the opinions he expressed in Harper’s Magazine in 1970. That year, Epstein wrote, “If I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth.” He also called homosexuals “cursed … quite literally, in the medieval sense of having been struck by an unexplained injury, an extreme piece of evil luck.” And while his latest book reports that he urged his son to apply to one of America’s best universities, he had a very different concern for his progeny 32 years ago. Then he wrote that there were many things that his sons could do that might cause him “anguish” or “outrage,” but “nothing they could ever do would make me sadder than if any of them were to become homosexual. For then I would know them condemned to a state of permanent niggerdom among men, their lives … to be lived out as part of the pain of the earth.” When I was researching “The Gay Metropolis” in 1996, I telephoned Mr. Epstein’s office to learn whether he might have modified any of these views. He never responded to my detailed message.

– Charles Kaiser

A footnote to Charles Kaiser’s recollections of Joseph Epstein’s 1970 classic of homophobia. As I recounted in my book, “Up From Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America,” as editor of the American Scholar Epstein managed to combine snobbery and homophobia in his resistance to the use of “gay” to mean homosexual, just when the New York Times, under Max Frankel, was coming to terms with history. A footnote from my book [p 119]:”Frankel may have heartened lesbian and gay Times staffers, but Joseph Epstein wasn’t impressed. Epstein, who earned his place in gay history with his 1970 Harper’s homophobic classic (which provoked a zap by the GAA), later became editor of the American Scholar. In the late 1980s, philosophers Ed Stein and Paul Bloom submitted a review of a work on homosexuality to the American Scholar and found themselves locked in a battle with Epstein over their use of the words lesbian and gay, which he wished to replace with female homosexual and homosexual. When told that even the New York Times used lesbian and gay, Epstein replied, ‘I am sure that you will understand that we do not look to the New York Times for leadership in this, or indeed any other matter.’ As their dialogue continued, Epstein opined that, ‘in these febrile and volatile times, [the word gay] may not be around that long,’ and cited the style of The London Times as his preferred model. This led Stein to wonder why The American Scholar would scorn the New York Times in favor of the London Times.”

– Larry Gross

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