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« A Show About Nothing | Main | Ronald Sukenick »

07/26/2004

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doug

Boy are you on a roll.

"Exactly how moral is it to write and publish essays that verbally attack most writers in sight, that condemn current writers en masse as morally defecient in too many ways to count, and to do so in language and tone (and this is true not just of the reviews by Peck in The New Republic) that is by turns smarmy, cynical, and mocking?"

Let's leave aside for now Wieseltier's piece, since it's pretty obvious your using it as a club for Peck, that Peck's the real thrust here.

How moral is it? Who cares? I don't understand the logic of your invective here, since you yourself reject "moral criticism" anyway. (I'm not even sure Peck is a "critic" as much as a "reviewer", but let's let that pass.) Peck's job, as far as I understood it, was to read a bunch of books and deliver his opinion. That opinion is valuable insofar as (a) an aesthetic judgement is outlined (b)the argument is supported and (c) the opinion resonates with readers. Whether you like what he says is a completely different matter: I do at points, don't at others.

I read movie reviews, restaurant reviews and music reviews every day that are similar to Peck's. Even genre book reviews. Peck's not some creature floating down from Saturn: to the extent he came across that way is a poor reflection on the literary world he wrote about, frankly, suggesting it's an insular, altogether too cozy place.

"In the final analysis, what kind of contribution to literary culture, to literature, is it to pronounce almost all contemporary fiction a waste of one's time?"

Peck might argue that his is the most important contribution of all; that the Emperor wears no clothes and somebody needs to say it. I would say something somewhat different, that a variety of viewpoints, even harshly critical ones, are valuable to an artform, that they bring to light aspects that a clubby consensus tends to keep hidden.

"How many clueless, narrow-minded, self-righteous killjoys have said similar things in the past about books now unambiguously considered great?"

You might want to tone the rhetoric down a bit here, since one could fairly argue that you're playing the killjoy to those who enjoy what Peck wrote. There's so much else wrong with this sentence I don't even know where to start: maybe with the implied notion that Peck's opinions are actually doing damage to great books.

"Violence certainly is a violation of the intellectual's responsibilities, but so are disingenuousness and hypocrisy."

I don't think Peck needs anyone to feel sorry for him; he's a big boy. I find the Crouch incident humorous, frankly, and indicative that Peck's critics can't really combat him on the field of opinions, that he renders them incoherent. The best response Crouch or you or anyone could make to Peck would be to defend one of the books he attacks, show that Peck's opinion is ill-founded, or unpersuasive, or whatever. That would actually engage these books, assume that they matter in some real, serious way.

Even attacking Peck's work itself would be fine, if someone would actually engage it. But all that ever seems to happen is people huffing and puffing about "how dare Peck say what he say", which only makes him look better. You're playing the square who doesn't understand the new kids with their crazy hairstyles and their loud music.

birnbaum

I was thumbing through my rule book to see where it validated Mister Doug's assertion, "The best response Crouch or you or anyone could make to Peck would be to defend one of the books he attacks, show that Peck's opinion is ill-founded, or unpersuasive, or whatever." Gee whiz I couldn't find a validating citation.

It is occasionally the case that reading (James Wood' s recent piece on Le Carre is a case in point) a critique I don't find any particulars to dispute and I still don't accept or am unconvinced by the conclusion. I suppose that might violate some principles of disputation or the sanctity of the syllogism or some such by I think it speaks to the ocean of
subjectivity that all of this literary opining swims in—not to mention the act of story telling itself.

Dale Peck is not Elvis or the Sex Pistols or anything new at all. There is nothing novel about unbridled self promotion and loud chest pounding. Or the (clever and relentless) ad hominem review. The huffing and puffing I note is in this wishful suggestion that Dale Peck is the New Critical Order.

Not that this was the point of Daniel's elegant
spearing of the New Republic's disingenius literary editor.

To which I say, "Bravo."

doug

"It is occasionally the case that reading (James Wood' s recent piece on Le Carre is a case in point) a critique I don't find any particulars to dispute and I still don't accept or am unconvinced by the conclusion. I suppose that might violate some principles of disputation or the sanctity of the syllogism or some such by I think it speaks to the ocean of
subjectivity that all of this literary opining swims in—not to mention the act of story telling itself."

Well, I have no idea what you're trying to say, though all dem latinate words sure sound pretty.

In the interest of clarity, let's clarify: I'm distinguishing between Mr Birnbaum, idly nibbling on a macaroon and languidly determining which argument will persuade him today, and Mr. Green, who's trying to mount a critique. I really don't care if you or anyone "likes" Peck: if you're going to oppose him, though, I'd like to see better justifications than this.

"Dale Peck is not Elvis or the Sex Pistols or anything new at all. There is nothing novel about unbridled self promotion and loud chest pounding. Or the (clever and relentless) ad hominem review. The huffing and puffing I note is in this wishful suggestion that Dale Peck is the New Critical Order. "

?

I never said he was. I said he was new in the context of highbrow literary reviews (alright, I'll give you this -- "newish") and I'll stand by that. Else why all the fooforaw? All the screams that the barbarians had entered the gates? All the moaning of how shocking Peck is?

Please. Let's not be disingenuous: I can point you to fifty movie reviews that have similar styles to Peck. It's a rather typical cultural-review style nowadays. Peck's real "innovation" was to shift it to literary reviews.

Indeed, that's part of my point: there's not a lot new to Peck's style. The fact that the literary world thinks there is reflects badly on the literary world, frankly.

Oh, and I've never said he was the future of criticism: in fact right here on this blog I've taken pains to say that I didn't think every critic had to write like Peck, and even suggested some areas where I disagreed with him. That's quite a different thing from saying *nobody* should, though.

Your post has nothing substantive here: it waters down to "I don't like him because I don't like him", which I'm sure is accurate but,well, not much else.

birnbaum

Mister Dougie,

Your kidding? Well okay, I know you are not.

If you are going to quote and quibble for your own convenience that's up to you. But do point out the part where I said I don't like Dale Peck.

I'm sorry you didn't get my point about Wood's Le Carre review. I thought I made the same point in a conversation with Wood on that same matter and he apparently understood me (of course, he could of been trying to be polite and solicitous, something I suspect you have never been accused of).

And this reductionist claim that the criticism of Peck boils down to one or two points is, well, silly.

By the way, I think it's perfectly legitimate to castigate and even demonize Peck for being nasty and unkind—cruel, actually. Carrying the banner of Truth does not justify trampling on anyone's feeling with hobnail boots (and I think some of Peck's rhetorical flourishes are the equivalent ).

I'm not concerned with movie reviewers and don't much care where the Peckian style is the order of the day. But I must say at this point I am not sure who you, Mr Dougie, are responding to.

I can't let it go unsaid that I sense a nastiness of tone and attitude coming from you, Dougie.

Of course, I wasn't building a brief , I was making a comment in response to a well- presented argument by Dan Green and your responding comment . In another instance I might not have considered this but I got the distinct impression that " idly nibbling on a macaroon, languidly determining which argument blah blah blah..." was your attempt at a (not so) subtle ethnic gesture (slur?).

Talk about irrelevance. Or flailing. I can't remember anyone attacking something I said or wrote by surrounding it with what I might be eating. And languid, that's not a modifier that has ever applied to anything connected with me.

Tsk, tsk.

ignatius

Hey, this exchange is more entertaining than reading a Peck review!

Oops -- sorry, Dan.

doug

Mr. Birnbaum:

1. Your "point" about Wood's Le Carre review (which I have read, actually, and more or less agree with) seems to be that you didn't agree with Wood but didn't really have any reasons why:

"I don't find any particulars to dispute and I still don't accept or am unconvinced by the conclusion.... I think it speaks to the ocean of
subjectivity that all of this literary opining swims in—not to mention the act of story telling itself."

If there's a point beyond "I didn't like it and really don't have reasons why" please, elucidate.

2. Do you like Dale Peck? No coy "oceans of subjectivity", now -- nothing vague. Straight up. Yes or no? Or "I don't know"?

3. An actual point!

"By the way, I think it's perfectly legitimate to castigate and even demonize Peck for being nasty and unkind—cruel, actually. Carrying the banner of Truth does not justify trampling on anyone's feeling with hobnail boots (and I think some of Peck's rhetorical flourishes are the equivalent )."

I strongly disagree. People are free to say what they want about Peck, of course: but I feel it's an illegitimate criticism.

If we're engaged in criticism/reviewing/whatever, and we're pretending that this stuff matters, that it's important if a book's good or bad and why -- and as much and as often as I disagree with Mr. Green, I share his sense that this is an extremely important thing to do -- then the feelings of the individual are irrelevant. I could care less if Stanley Crouch was hurt by the Peck review; he took that chance when he published the book.

Carrying the banner of truth does not *justify* tramping on feet, or the poor benighted feelings of Mr. Crouch, who apparently felt praise was his just due. It doesn't mean that feet won't be trampled on, though, in the process. Peck had a responsibility to the book, and to his sense of what good writing was. He owed nothing to Mr. Crouch.

Art isn't for sissies: people really need to suck it up and move on.

4. We'll skip over your lack of understanding of my points about the culture of reviewing and how unremarkable Peck is when seen in a broader perspective, and end with this remarkable piece of writing:

"Of course, I wasn't building a brief , I was making a comment in response to a well- presented argument by Dan Green and your responding comment . In another instance I might not have considered this but I got the distinct impression that " idly nibbling on a macaroon, languidly determining which argument blah blah blah..." was your attempt at a (not so) subtle ethnic gesture (slur?). "

Please don't be foolish in public, Mr. Birnbaum. I'm embarrassed on your behalf that you wrote such nonsense. I have no idea what your ethnicity is and could care less; I also have no idea what ethnic group is best typified by cookie-eating and languidness.

I was going for a sub-Proustian thing, but since you missed it I'll spell things out bluntly. Yours was not a serious response. Your point is that you can dislike a critic without having a basis for it: fine, that's not in dispute. But it's irrelevant to my point, which is that if a serious man like Mr. Green wants to launch an attack on Peck, he has a certain responsibility to be serious about it, to *have* a basis. He owes it -- not to Peck, but to the books or standards he feels he must defend -- to rise about cafe chatter. "Peck's mean! That's bad! "

Now, Mr. Green doesn't have to do things just because I'm arguing for them. Nor do you. But Mr. Green doesn't have to keep bringing him up, either. I'm tired of the anti-Peck backlash, it's built on nothing more substantial than a lot of grousing about how "tough" and "cruel" Peck was. If it were a matter of Peck in isolation, that would be one thing, but the response is disturbing to me for what it says about literary culture in general. Is literary culture so weak-kneed that it can't take the relative mild slaps of Peck?

I warn you, Mr. Birnbaum, I do like food and drink metaphors and images and utilize them often. Better luck interpreting them, next time.

doug

Daniel Green

I'll just intervene briefly to say that my post was not about Peck. It was about the ludicrous comments made by L. Wieseltier and his blatant hypocrisy. And please, Doug, don't be disingenuous yourself. If Peck's friends and/or admirers don't like the attacks on him, they should remind him that he started it. What did he really expect would happen?

pete

Doug is the worst blog commentator of his generation.

"Is literary culture so weak-kneed that it can't take the relative mild slaps of Peck?"

Are you and Dale Peck so weak-kneed that you can't take a few mild slaps from a blogger? Green *does* have a basis for his distate of the style of Dale Peck -- it is anti-intellectual. Peck's writing is filled with fallacies and his basic premise is that if a book "deceives" him it deserves to be ripped apart.

To Peck, a critic "must tell the truth. If something makes you hopping mad, you must be allowed to express it." *Must* be? What if you just don't have any argument for *why* something has made you "hopping mad"? What if, instead, you resort to hysterical gibberish? *My* problem with Peck is that instead of saying something, he chooses empty histrionics. My problem with Peck is that his style is just boring. I happened upon his review of Moody's The Black Veil way back when, before this whole publishing frenzy surrounded him, and was thrilled. I dislike Moody's writing and was glad to have found a critic who shared my dislike but it became clear that the review was more of a character-assassination than a weighty argument against the *work*.

By the way, I'm an artist and I prefer negative criticism. I prefer, though, that a critic look at a work for what it is and not what he or she wants it to be. When a critic is lazy like this and constructs a straw man, I can't be expected to sit back and twiddle my thumbs. In this respect, Peck largely discredits himself. It's sad that so many people care about him either way. I'm more interested in you and your vociferous defense of him and his style than I am in the man himself.

birnbaum

Young Doug,

You do try one's patience.

"Art isn’t for sissies"? Do you have T-shirts emblazoned with this sage aphorism? It is a bit harder to take you seriously with such sizzling bon mots in your latest squalling.

Also, I would appreciate your admonition to not embarrass my self in public and the expression of concern, if you had shown any evidence of compassion or sensitivity in anything you have written. I found this was a rather unsubtle way of saying I should be embarrassed by considering that you were edging toward anti Semitism with a reference to a food that Jews, at least, identify as originating with their ethnicity.

I realize the set-up I am giving you here but —fuck it, embarrassing myself is not, for me, a top of mind concern. And if it were, I imagine I would rather do so it in public.

Sub Proustian? Oh Lordy!


Again, the point is that I did not disagree with Wood's citations and points. But I still was/am not convinced by his arguments that Le Carre is not a literary writer:

RB: You recently wrote a piece on John Le Carre, in which I could not take exception to what you wrote, but I came away unconvinced and still liking the novel. And I wasn’t distressed at you nor did I think I had wasted my time.

JW: I think that’s completely fair.

RB: The same applies, in a way, when I have read Dale Peck. I am amused and there is flamboyance of prose—

JW: Dale Peck is a good example in a way because what he sometimes fails to do is—the rush to rhetoric, away from argument can mean that’s it’s just manifesto. It’s not even an attempt to take a reader along.

RB: He’s an excitable guy.

JW: He is an excitable guy. But Le Carre is a good example because when I am writing about him I am perfectly aware that there are two or three things being prosecuted in a piece like that that probably don’t have anything to do with ordinary readers. One is there is an attempt to separate Le Carre as a genre writer from more literary writers. You may or may not win that argument but you are aware that there are plenty of readers who aren’t going to care. So what? Then there are going are to be readers who do think he is a literary writer and will not be convinced by your argument anyway. Then there will be a third category of reader who couldn’t tell the difference anyway. It doesn’t matter how long you go at them. You can put a passage of Bellow or Roth along side a more formulaic passage of Le Carre and they won’t see it. It’s not that they don’t care. They can’t make those discriminations. And then the danger I suppose as a critic is, you have narrowed yourself down and you are talking to a tiny group of people who are probably already converted. Which is why you don’t want to do that sort of piece too often.

Sure I like Dale. So did my dog Rosie. Do I like his fiction? Yes. Do I like his reviews? Actually, I rarely read his or any one else's. Dare I remind you there is much new writing to wade/muck through and a nod from a Dan Green or a Maude Newton or any of the other members of what Mark Sarvas has referred to as the literary cabal (you know who you are) is more useful to me than any review (er). Or Jim Harrison's and Kent Harouf's recommendation of Mark Spragg's An Unfinished life or Zoe Heller touting Port Mongo. That's what works for me.

Look, I think story telling is the essential human endeavor. Which of necessity includes matters of the heart. To say that once having told their story the story teller is then fair game for any kind of critical mugging seems to give them less rights and standing than the rest of humanity. Which, at the least, strikes me as silly.

When Michael Kinsley recently committed what everyone I read took to be an evisceration of David Brook's latest tome as devastating a critique as it was seen to be, no one suggested that Kinsley had been mean or nasty. I suppose one can accept "Peck had a responsibility to the book, and to his sense of what good writing was." without granting Peck or anyone license to trample on another human being.

Might you consider that?

My conclusion may very well be "Peck's mean and cruel. And that's bad." But I would suggest that you are doing a disservice to the other critics of Peck and hatchet-wielding and to the attempt to illuminate this issue by trivializing their arguments as that. I can assure you some of us are taking this matter seriously.

Robert Lashley

IMO, Cutting past the hyperbole on both sides of Peck debate, The real issues regarding D.P aren’t centered around any matters of literary fiat as much as they are about the role of a critic itself; whether or not criticism is an exchange of ideas or a forum for base intellectual provocation.

What’s frustrating about Peck is that he intimates about his theories on the novel in his criticism but doesn’t really go into enough detail. Reading Hatchet Jobs you get a sketch on what he wants the novel to be. He wants both modern and postmodernism with human feeling, realism without realpolitik, and all three with a great deal more aesthethic clarity and imagination. The problem is that the broad, sweeping and at times pre-pubecent polemicist cuts him off way too often. Reading Peck is like seeing his inner critic and child battle, at times sentence by sentence. Peck has, to use a Robert Penn Warren quote about James Baldwin, ''a tendency to pull away from the specific issue which might provoke analysis, toward one more general in which, in a shadowy depth, emotion coils”. Too often we see his rage without seeing what provoked him to it. Too often he explodes like a child, when he should discipline and harness his anger.

I mean him derisively saying in the Crouch review that All black writers since Zora Neale Hurston use the Lyricism of black culture? Forgetting for a second that beneath the vernacular, Hurston was an elegant and ambitious minimalist influenced by both Tolstoy( the flower scene in There Eyes Were Watching God was straight out of Hadji Murat) and Kate Chopin, what about Baldwin, one of if not the most ardent James-o-phile of the second half of the 20th century, or Ann Petry, Gwendolyn Brooks, Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones,or later John Edgar Wideman who is almost influenced as much by Virginia Woolf and as he is Baldwin, Ellison or Wright?

Saying about Swen Bikerts that “ with friends like this literature needs an enema.”? Forgetting again for a second the vulgarity of the image, Peck doesn’t even come close to showing anything that Bikerts has ever done to evoke such an ugly statement.

But what takes the cake for me is the suggestion that David Foster Wallace should be anal raped. I don’t care that much for Wallace, but Jesus Christ! Imagine the firestorm that would have came if he had said that about someone like Alice Walker? If this is criticism, then what are we talking about when we say the word? What do we want criticism to be? Do we want an environment this coarse, dense and juvenile?


Now one might tell me that Peck’s point is that ALL modern fiction is flawed, that he is on a crusade to tell you this until literature changes and he shouldn’t write positive reviews if he doesn’t want to. My point is that if those are his only messages, the sole proponents to his schtick, and that we shouldn’t expect him to write anything besides that, then why the hell should the reader care? We already know he thinks almost everything sucks. Why hear him repeat himself, with an occasional juvenile aside that would be laughed out of freshman comp. My point is that when you get down to it, this really isn’t about the state of literature itself as much as it is about the state of Dale Peck, the writer. And for this a pox needs to be put on the house of editors like Leon Wieseltier who, instead of telling Peck to cut down on the excess rhetoric, eggs him on like a middle school classmate giddy at the thought of arranging a recess brawl. For though they may be engaging in a dialogue about the state of modern criticism, they are fucking up whatcould be a damm good writer by coddling his worst instincts.

birnbaum

Robert

We meet again. And a pleasure it is.

I am with you until you get to the last graf where you seem to relieve Dale Peck of responsibility for giving in to his worst instincts (I'd also say the categorization is arguable—is it, 'instinct', 'motive', or character flaw'?)

In human affairs I find it best not to assert single or pure motives and in this roiling fracas that would seem to me to be at least a safe if not a wise course. Wieseltier seems to have taken the practice of assigning known adversaries to review their enemies' books to a new level of blood sport. Shame on him. That does not put Dale Peck in the role of the unwitting and naive contender— joyfully pummeling his opponents. I believe he knows what he is doing; though what might be as you say, fucking him up is an interesting question.

Joe O

The situation didn't devolve into a "bitch-slapping". Crouch hit Peck. That is unsupportable. Crouch is a bully, Peck isn't the first writer Crouch hit.

I don't agree with Peck on all his conclusions(especially as to modern and post-modern fiction), but his essays are very readable. Strong opinions are a good thing from a critic.

It's not a myth. Sticks and stones can break bones.

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