Dale Peck's scathing review of Rick Moody and a dozen other writers of "postmodern drivel" has the literary world buzzing about what makes for good -- and bad -- criticism.

Published July 24, 2002 7:34PM (EDT)

The first sentence of the review resembled an author's darkest nightmare: "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation." The critic was a fellow novelist, Dale Peck, writing in the July 1 issue of the New Republic, and the review, of Moody's new memoir, "The Black Veil," went on to eviscerate not only all of Moody's work, but seemingly every critically acclaimed contemporary novelist. Moody, Peck complains after a dissection of the author's "very bad" book, belongs to a group of writers who constitute "the highest of canonical postmodernism ... a bankrupt 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."

Soon after the review was posted to the New Republic's Web site, literary writers and critics were calling and e-mailing each other about it, and the hive is still buzzing. Like it or not, Peck's down-flung gauntlet has the literati talking about such larger questions as: What makes for good criticism? Is the literary world too polite and clubby? Can a novelist fairly review his more critically acclaimed rival? And finally, what is the effect of this kind of skirmish on literary culture at large?

This isn't the first time Peck's criticism has raised eyebrows; he's become a literary hit man, most recently known for his savage assassinations of Stanley Crouch and Jim Crace, also in the New Republic. But this time, even New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier says he wasn't prepared for the "magnitude of the massacre." In some 6,000 words, Peck presents himself as, by turns, a crusader rescuing literature from the contaminating horrors of Moody's "pretentious, muddled, derivative, bathetic" prose; a vigilante, rounding up a gang of similarly despicable culprits (the list of trounced scribblers is so long and illustrious that those not on it must feel left out); and a moralizing parent, admonishing readers, "If you honestly do not believe that this is bad writing, then you are a part of the problem."

Reactions from other book reviewers ranged from dumbfounded horror to cringing respect to something like exhilaration. "So much reviewing these days is tantamount to playing patty-cake," says David Kipen, book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. "I found Peck completely invigorating."

But writer Andrew Solomon ("The Noonday Demon"), who himself trounced Moody's memoir in another publication, notes, "For a disparagement to be persuasive the reviewer must recognize the merits of the writer under discussion before proceeding to his faults. By refusing to recognize any of Rick Moody's strengths, Dale Peck destroys his credibility and looks really very foolish."

Critic Sven Birkerts agreed and argued, furthermore, that "reviews like this subtly degrade the profession, and experience shows that the long-range consequence is seldom to the advantage of the hit man."

Other observers note that such a display of literary venom wouldn't cause much of a fuss if it were published in England or Europe. Like bewigged M.P.s lobbing rhetorical spitballs at the prime minister, British critics thrive on a healthy irreverence. A review that might be perceived as endearingly caustic in Britain would be shockingly out of place in the U.S. "British reviewers are much more unapologetic than American ones when they attack material they think is weak," says Solomon. "They have in general, however, a strong sense of irony and a keen sense of their own position as they write a review; their cruelty tends to be playful. They would not tend to do what Peck does, which is to exaggerate the importance of the topic and of himself."

Charles McGrath, editor of the New York Times Book Review, briskly assesses the differences between domestic and continental roastings: "There's a certain kind of review that makes news. The Brits have a formula for this. You call up the author's ex-husband or ex-wife and ask them to write something; it makes for lively copy. On the other hand, there's a question of fairness and responsibility. We're talking about writers' livelihoods, after all."

London Review of Books critic Jenny Turner points out that in her experience, American editors at least attempt to avoid obvious conflicts of interest by ensuring that the critic doesn't know a novelist personally before assigning a review. In the U.K., she says, no one bothers to ask whether extraliterary concerns might pose an ethical dilemma for the writer.

Novelist Jeffrey Eugenides, another writer mentioned in Peck's review of the Moody book, remarks that in Germany, where he lives, "The gloves are off when it comes to literary criticism. There isn't so much professional courtesy as in the States."

Dennis Schenk, a German critic who, like Peck, has been the subject of controversy for his lambasting of canonized German writers like Peter Handke and G|nter Grass, agrees that the German intellectual climate is more diverse. Most American reviews, he says, "exude the unappealing stench of a high school library where students are sweating over reading reports." They suffer from "first, a purely journalistic agenda by book reviewers just in the same way a journalist would cover a fire in the neighborhood or a speech by a politician. Instead of entering into an aesthetic discussion, dreary plot summaries take up the precious space. Finally, the notion that 'we are all in this together,' that the reading public is a beleaguered small group and that 'we' should not waste our energy with squabbles among ourselves, is a sure recipe for cultural entropy."

Just because a critic doesn't know the author he's reviewing, though, doesn't mean he's free of personal agendas. Some of Peck's detractors have cattily pointed out that his books, while generally well received, have been less celebrated than Moody's. Peck, who has written three novels, considers himself, as he modestly told Elizabeth Manus of the New York Observer a few years back, "one of the best writers around," a phrase perhaps unwittingly echoed in the first line of his review of Moody.

Herein lies the difficulty of novelist-reviewers; unlike theater or film critics, who rarely wind up practicing the art they review, novelist-reviewers can find themselves in a position to either help or hinder their friends and rivals. In the July 6 issue of the Guardian, Granta editor Ian Jack jokingly proposed a "hebridean island of critical standards," called Little Personal Connection, where "every review submitted will be accompanied by a legal document -- there will be a lawyer on the island, a Mr. McFee -- in which the reviewer swears on oath that he knows neither publisher, nor author, nor author's agent."

Charles McGrath observes that fellow novelists can be too easy on a colleague's work as often as -- if not more often than -- they are too harsh. "Some novelists have a guild mentality. They won't say anything bad about other writers who are in the guild, so what you get is bland and wishy-washy prose. But another issue is that reviewing and writing novels are two different skills. Just because you write a great novel doesn't mean you can write a good review."

Andrew Hultkrans, editor in chief of BookForum magazine, notes that "young novelists have a tendency to deliver timid, on-the-fence reviews. They're scared of karmic payback, or they're so empathetic to the difficulties of writing a novel they can't bring themselves to criticize other novelists."

Turner avoids reviewing books by people she knows, but acknowledges that writing a novel has made her more reluctant to write bad reviews. "When you are -- sorry to use the sappy word -- creating, it does make you a bit maternal and protective, of your own work, primarily, but also, of that drive in other people, no matter how much you might disapprove of the way they're bringing up their particular baby."

The noted novelist-reviewer Francine Prose concurs: "I think novelists can make good critics because they have a sense of how much time, effort, pain, etc., goes into writing a novel." But that doesn't, in her opinion, redeem Peck's review. "What's clearly missing in the piece is a sense of what it is about literature that Dale Peck loves and cares about so much -- what precisely he's defending with so much passion and venom, and why. A good critic, I think, should have both -- passionate likes and dislikes."

But the book world is no different from the real world, and passionate dislikes are what get attention. Several months ago the New York Times Book Review published an extremely negative review by novelist Colson Whitehead of a collection of short stories by Richard Ford, and McGrath says the piece occasioned more mail and phone calls than any other review in recent memory. It's also famously easier to write negative reviews than positive ones, and even Peck himself says he's solicited by editors for his toughness. (He adds, by way of defense, that the London Review stopped assigning him reviews after he turned in praiseful ones.)

"I am extremely savage," Peck admits, not without pride. But can he really sling the mud with the best of them? Or is this piece, as one writer deadpans, just a "huge chunk of undigested blubber bobbing in the waters of the New Republic"?

Hultkrans questions Peck's self-appointed role as what Hultkrans calls "the custodian of the literary world. His agenda is fairly unsparing and leaves basically no solution to the American literary dilemma but Dale Peck. It raises the question, who is the savior? What are the alternatives?"

This is an interesting question. Of all the famous American writers Peck so notoriously insults, none are women, or gay; one is black. And that's part of Peck's point; it's straight white guys who are writing the arid high-postmodernist "drivel" Peck loves to hate. But Peck's targets differ wildly in literary style -- can Eugenides, for example, really be considered to write high-postmodernist drivel? And by singling these writers out, Peck reinfuses them with the cultural cachet he so apparently lacks.

Peck, a gay writer who edited an anthology of gay fiction, says he admires many women writers (Heather Lewis and Kathryn Davis, to name two), but he never mentions a single one in his article. Evidently, Peck doesn't think writers like A.M. Homes and Willa Cather carry the same weight in the literary canon as a Dave Eggers or a Faulkner. Their consolation prize: They don't share responsibility for its bankruptcy. Stanley Crouch, still stinging from the drubbing his novel, "Don't the Moon Look Lonesome," received at Peck's hands, prefers a different identity-based analysis. "Dale Peck," he says, "is a troubled queen, and the only person who cares about him being a troubled queen is himself."

Most of Peck's critics, though, opt for a higher road. Reviewing a book, they imply, is as much a decision about how to participate in a communal conversation as it is a judgement of literary merits. And Peck's review, in Solomon's opinion, devalues literary currency as a whole.

"You have to reserve some language for Sept. 11, Adolf Hitler or, if you're discussing art, Albert Speer," says Solomon. "There can be a crisis in literature that warrants this urgency, but this isn't it. Turning such frantic invective on writing that even in Peck's view is nothing worse than banal and self-important is extremely irresponsible. I think Peck's review tends to make literary discourse laughable rather than powerful, ridiculous rather than urgent."

Not only is the discourse lacking in urgency, argues Hultkrans, but something's been more fundamentally diminished in literary endeavors: "There's something a little sad about the reduced expectation of the novelist as public intellectual. A novelist can't hope to have the kind of impact Norman Mailer did when he wrote about Vietnam. Nobody cares about Rick Moody in middle-class households. The way Peck marshaled all this venom and shot it out over such a long piece - it's sort of like somebody arriving at a badminton game with a cannon."

Others feel that by treating Moody and what he perceives as Moody's ilk as if they were war criminals, Peck is reminding us that words are worth caring about. "At least [Peck] recognizes that great things are at stake in our world," says Turner, "and the task facing those of us who attempt to represent it in language."

But does it take a hatchet job like Peck's to give literature a boost? The point, says McGrath, is not to get more reviewers to trash books. "The point is raising the level of discourse to where it feels urgent, whether it's favorable or critical. The one thing you can say about the Dale Peck piece is that he acted as if this were Armageddon."

Even Eugenides, who came in for a dose of Peck's scorn, can see some value in the review's boldness. "I support this kind of theoretical attack, even when it assails my own work. Peck may not be right about his scorched-earth policy. But his essay moves the discussion from the small idea (is this a good book or not?) to the larger one (where should literature be headed?). That's what makes it criticism."

Finally, "criticism" or not, some suspect the whole brouhaha is just another example of New York self-absorption. "If anybody on the West Coast were talking about this no one on the East Coast would notice," says the San Francisco Chronicle's Kipen. "What is wrong with American fiction is that way too much attention is paid to grotty little pissing matches like this one. The real divide in literary matters in this country is not between postmodernists and traditionalists, it's between New York and everywhere else."

Does it matter whether Peck's review is a worthy example of contemporary criticism? Many read it; those who deplored it were also obviously galvanized by it. Isn't that achievement enough? Peck's New Republic piece is a reminder that book reviews aren't merely, or sometimes even mostly, reviews of the books. Criticism is never a sum of professional agendas. Something essential -- like the question, why do words matter? -- survives even the slimiest disputes.

"People say the discourse about books in this country often seems to be lacking in urgency," says McGrath. "I think that's true to some extent. When I first came to New York, people really argued about books. I saw relationships break up over books. I miss that."

By Heather Caldwell

Heather Caldwell is a writer living in New York.

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