Author and occasional book reviewer Dale Peck was tolling away at The New Republic in relative obscurity, writing 4,000- to 6,000-word reviews of books well after their publication date. Suddenly, one pungent line (and a profile in The New York Times Magazine, posed with a hatchet) catapulted him into the literary spotlight. Peck wrote, “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation,” and suddenly became known as the meanest critic in America. The Guardian claimed his name had become a verb. To Peck.
Now Peck, whose latest novel is “What We Lost,” is giving up his slash-and-burn reviewing. Because of all the talk about the reviews, he says, they’ve passed their “sell-by date.” Before bidding adieu though, he has gathered some of his nastiest reviews in a book boldly called “Hatchet Jobs,” published this month by The New Press.
Earlier this month at BookExpo in Chicago, Book Babe Ellen Heltzel appeared on a panel discussion with Peck called “Bibliocide: Are Reviews and Reviewers Becoming Co-opted by Writers?” Although no one on the panel was sure what the discussion was supposed to be about, it soon became a battle between Philadelphia Inquirer book critic Carlin Romano and Peck. Or, more precisely, an attack by Romano on Peck with the former quoting liberally from the latter’s review — out of context, Peck later complained when Ellen and I sat down with him for a chat. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.
More of Peck’s comments can be seen at http://www.tampabay.com/aboutbooks/. They appeared in the June 20 book pages of the St. Petersburg Times.
Book Babes: Are book critics snobs?
Dale Peck: People ask reviewers why they don’t write about Stephen King, why they don’t write about John Grisham, why they don’t write about these writers people want to read. The fact is that those writers get lots of media attention, but not from book critics. These books by and large don’t seem to have any trouble finding their audience. I don’t think “The Rule of Four” will get a good review in The New York Times, but it got the front page of the newspaper. Which would you rather have? It’s on the way to selling two million copies. Those books are doing fine. The Da Vinci Code got some very interesting reviews on Amazon, but no one else is writing about the book in the critical world. But the book is taking care of itself.
But isn’t there a danger of creating a gulf between the rarefied world of reviewing and the general public?
That problem is probably something I think about more often as a novelist than as a reviewer. It’s one of the problems I have with the writers I have written about. Why does literature have to be so boring? And why, when it is funny, does it have to be so juvenile? Dave Eggers does the post-modern, “I’m talking about the book that I’m writing inside the book I’m writing. Isn’t that funny?” No, it’s not funny. It’s a lot funnier on “The Simpsons” than it is in Dave Eggers’ book. We seem to forget that so many of the great writers — foremost among them Homer and Shakespeare — wrote for the masses.
I have no problem with anyone who wants to write something really insular, something really private, something that’s going to appeal to three people, if that’s what their sensibility is, but I have a problem with saying that there’s something wrong with wanting to speak to average Americans.
What do you think of “commercial” fiction?
One of the great things about Stephen King is that he doesn’t pander. Stephen King really, really likes what he does — and it’s present on every page. I have a great admiration for commercial writers like Stephen King and Danielle Steele. One of the reason why their books do so well is because they believe in what they’re doing. They do not dress it up. Especially Stephen King. There is something vital about the way people respond to his work. And he should be proud of that. I’ve read 20 Stephen King novels and have never seen one that it seemed that he phoned in. When I was a little kid, I was a big fan of Danielle Steele. I would always steal my sister’s book. It never seemed to me once that she didn’t care. That she liked these kinds of books. I don’t get that impression from Grisham.
Doesn’t the whole lottery-like aspect of writing success bother you?
That’s not any writer’s fault. It’s not Tom Clancy’s fault. It’s not John Grisham’s fault. I don’t
know why anyone reads a John Grisham book. But for whatever reason, he tapped into something and now he’s a brand.
At what point in your reviews do you say, “Ah that’s not going to work for me, that’s pushing it too far?”
One of the reasons I felt personally that I had to stop was because I think I had gotten a little amused by myself. There’s a line in the Sven Birkerts review when I say, “With friends like this, literature needs an enema.” Following that I say, “That was probably a bit much, wasn’t it?” And it was. It was entirely gratuitous. But I couldn’t resist. It was my swan song.
When I wrote a sentence like “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation,” in my head, I’m
imagining 50 people reading that line. I’m imagining 50 people reading it in context. The very next line, which is an apology for the opening line of the review, says that that line is meaningless. Let’s face it, this is a novel. There are no objective standards. Every year, there are five different prize committees (who) award the best novel of the year to five different books. We know there’s no such thing as best and worst in these categories. I was just p—– off. A review, like a novel, has a narrative arc to it. Typically, you don’t start at the top and slope downward, because then it’s all downward-hill. You start somewhere in the middle, you build up to something. Everything I tried with Moody felt false to me. It felt just like I was setting him up to knock him over. …
The fact of the matter was that no book that I had read in recent memory had p—– me off (more) than Moody’s “Black Veil” and I wanted to register that.
My problem with that book is that Rick Moody did not consider his subject in and of itself fit material for a book, so he had to dress it up with incredibly pretentious, incredibly sophomoric, and incredibly badly executed literary conceits.
What does the intense interest in your negative reviews say about book criticism in general?
One of the problems with the discussion around my work is that it is somehow deemed
disingenuous when I say that I really think of the opinions I express in my reviews as solely my
opinions and I’m not concerned with whether or not they’re palatable to a large audience or with whether or not people agree with me. I consider this a very, very private venture, just like the novel, which I think will have meaning to a certain number of readers, but not many.