Saturday, June 25, 2005

Aggressive Criticism: Dale Peck the Grate

aggressive criticism: Dale Peck the "Grate"

Aggressive criticism is the only really effective criticism.

But the trend of the world is the wimpy, weak, cowardly "don't upset or offend anybody" attitude.

This mushy, wishy-washy attitude is simply a lack of values masquerading as "tolerance" and "diplomacy".

Recall how many human monsters got away with heinous crimes, largely due to people either being dumb, not wanting to get involved, or dreading confrontation and conflict.

If blogs are about anything at all, they, the best ones, are about confrontation and conflict.

Friends, I will offend and upset anybody I think has it coming. I will attack and denounce anything I want. There's so much that is wrong, inept, stupid, mediocre, or evil in this world--and it deserves a sound thrashing.

Dale Peck, the literary critic and author has some qualities that I find in line with my approach.

dale peck (photo by robert birnbaum)

I was watching C-Span Booknotes this Saturday morning. Dale Peck was being interviewed. Fascinating.

One memorable quote (my awkward paraphrase): "People tend to read non-fiction like it's fiction, exclaiming 'It reads like a novel!' and they read fiction like it's non-fiction, defending fictional characters as if they were real, like soap opera characters."

When I heard Dale Peck say that, I start paying close attention. He was articulating thoughts that were vaguely floating in my mind.

So I googled his name and read some articles about Dale, soon discovering he is a "grate" like me. He trashes what he dislikes, and he explains well his vigorous, impolite, unnerving methodology. I think he's a genuine literary hero. I like him.

I agree: enormously stupid and stubborn ideas need aggressive criticism.

Sometimes the only way to dislodge a stupidity is to attack it harshly.

A strong and clever statement, a "zinger", can wake people up and open their eyes, while a soft, mild mannered, timid comment is ignored and dismissed.

Join me in an adventure of discovery: discovering Dale Peck "the Grate"!


From "Hatchet man" by Kate Kellaway
Sunday November 23, 2003
The Observer

Dale Peck is the scourge of literary America, laying into everyone from Julian Barnes to Don DeLillo. Is aggression a critical virtue, and should British reviewers follow his lead?

There is a new verb in the US: to Peck.

Or an old verb with a new meaning.

Dale Peck is a literary one man bandit - he trashes everything he reads.

Is this a dagger I see before me? Or a review by Dale Peck?

He specialises in opening lines such as: 'Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.'

No one is let off lightly: Philip Roth, Julian Barnes, Jim Crace - name an author and they have all been Pecked. He has published three novels himself and is hyperactively well read, with an eye for detail and a transparent personal agenda about what the contemporary novel ought to be (as close to his own as possible).


Reading his reviews, there is a sense that Peck's writing is motored by a rage that has little to do with literature.

There are clues in his biography. He grew up on Long Island, the son of an alcoholic plumber. His mother died in mysterious circumstances when he was three and he has put it on record that 'violence' may have had something to do with it.

When his father discovered his son was gay, he beat him up. Peck's father is important here, if only because his latest book is a 'memoir' about his father's childhood (What We Lost, published in February by Granta).

Dale Peck emerges as a fighter with the evangelical zeal of a Jehovah's Witness for whom the End of the Novel is Nigh.

He was educated at Drew University in New Jersey and took a creative writing course at Columbia. He was talent-spotted as a critic by James Wood, who commissioned him to write in the back pages of the New Republic, back pages that were to make front-page news.

Peck's admirers value him because of the scale of his ambitions as a critic.

There is an almost suicidal valour about seeing off so many writers with such assurance.

And Peck is as scathing about the fiction of the past as he is of the present.

The modernist tradition, he writes, 'began with the diarrhoeic 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, 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'.

In a single sentence: class dismissed.

When I spoke to Peck in New York, he struck me as at once bellicose and vulnerable. He talks fast and breathlessly, as if still winded by the blow dealt him by modern writers.

You might reasonably object that to stick his head above the parapet is not brave, merely a way of achieving visibility. But I warmed to him.

He has no sense of self-preservation. 'I write for writers and I just want to say to them: wake up! It is a dream of mine that they will.'

When I ask whether he wouldn't rather use something more delicate than a hatchet, he says he doesn't see it as a clumsy instrument - no weapon is too sharp to carve up the modern novel, which he sees as 'a reactionary force in aesthetic terms, irrelevant in cultural terms'.

He goes on: 'Novels and memoirs are on a wrong course. They are either inward-gazing, solipsistic and impotent or unconscious and rarefied, written by recidivist realists who pretend the twentieth century didn't happen.'

A critic, he says 'must tell the truth. If something makes you hopping mad, you must be allowed to express it'.

But if he dislikes everything he reads, why read at all? Who does he like? Early Philip Roth and Virginia Woolf (strange bedfellows) miss the chop. So do Joan Didion and Toni Morrison. Though, he hastens to add, 'they all have their problems'.

When I ask him to characterise the US reviewing scene, he cheers up: 'I am not sure if you can print this. But they are a bunch of pussies. They are back-scratchers, afraid for their own careers - novelists reviewing their friends' works. It is very dishonest.'

Does he ever worry about the effect his reviews may have on writers? 'The truth is that if you can't hack a negative review, you shouldn't be writing at that particular level. I really do believe a novel is nothing more than a strongly expressed opinion and that you need to respond strongly and with vitality.'


I cheer you on Dale Peck.

What little I know about you is both inspiring and healing.

You now bear the Official Vaspers the Grate Seal of Approval.

Let's hope that more bloggers and writers and business people get some courage and shout out against what they feel is wrong, stupid, inept, mediocre, or evil.

Rage on, people! For the Light!

[signed] Steven Streight aka Vaspers the Grate


carrie said...

"He was articulating thoughts that were vaguely floating in my mind."

I love when that happens.

steven edward streight said...

Carrie: I had a feeling you'd like that.

When mental nebulosities take form, when the indistinct feeling is articulated in profound or funny terms, it is so nice.

I don't know much about Dale Peck, but his interview on C-Span2 Book Notes was remarkable, worthy of making a remark about.

I feel like Dale and I could be really good friends.

I don't know what authors he likes.

I hope he likes Proust, Rimbaud, Thurber, Blanchot, Rilke, Derrida, Updike, Self, Kafka, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Twain, Dickens, others I favor.