Dale Peck rationalizes his reviews

In the Telegraph, Dale Peck rationalizes his overwhelmingly negative reviews. A similar piece (it might be the same piece?) appeared in The New Republic some time ago. I thought of commenting then but didn’t bother. Anyway, this bit is interesting:

One of the most common criticisms I’ve received about my book reviews, especially from friends, is that I don’t say much about the strengths of the writers. And it’s true, I don’t. Most of the novelists I review had thousands of words devoted to their strengths long before I got around to cataloguing their weaknesses: they don’t need me to point them out again. And God knows I’ve never aspired to anything like impartiality. If anything, I’ve always considered my flagrant bias to be one of the saving graces of my reviews. If they’re extreme in their opinions, that stridency can always be attributed to its author rather than to some pretext of a universal standard. The very extremity of my views does as much to undermine my authority as to enforce it, or at least I hope it does, because I am by no means convinced of the hallowedness of my own ideas. And talent isn’t the issue here: content is, and context. It seems to me that there are two strains of literature currently in vogue – what I have referred to, for lack of more authoritative terms, as recherché postmodernism and recidivist realism – and both of them, in my opinion, suck. I’m not interested in pointing out how an author works well in one mode or another, or executes one aspect of one or another mode with a greater or lesser degree of success, because I think the modes need to be thrown out entirely.

The other thing I hear a lot is that I don’t offer an alternative to the writing I spend so much time panning. If this is what writers shouldn’t be doing, then what should they do? My feeling here is that the last thing readers need is a writer telling them what to read (besides his or her own books, of course). And as for writers: well, if you need me to tell you how to write a novel than you probably shouldn’t be writing one in the first place.

Nevertheless, there are some things I’d like to say to my peers. These reviews are, I hope, some kind of dialogue with my generation. If, in the end, I offer nothing more than a series of prohibitions, it’s because I think it’s precisely the need to sign on to a programme that kills literature. As soon as a writer starts writing to belong to a tradition or a school rather than to describe what’s wrong with the world, he or she has gone from being, in the most hackneyed terms, part of the solution to part of the problem. Something which can be held up to a predetermined list of attributes that can be checked off one by one, so that a score of 80 per cent makes it good, 90 per cent makes it great, and 100 per cent gets it a gold star, isn’t art. It’s high school – and bad high school at that.

As one reads contemporary novelists, one can’t shake the feeling that they write for one another rather than some more or less common reader. Their prose shares a showiness that speaks of solidarity and competition – the exaggerated panache with which teenage boys shoot hoops in their driveway while pretending they don’t know their neighbour is watching from across the street. My hatred of all this teenage posing has reached such a fever pitch that I’m willing to be clownish in my denunciation of it – to spew obscenities in ostensibly literary contexts.

The plain truth is that I am less and less capable of intellectual engagement with contemporary fiction because I feel like I’ve been had when I do so: the very process of literary analysis legitimises a body of work that I feel is simply unworthy of such attention. My generation has inherited a tradition that has grown increasingly esoteric and exclusionary, falsely intellectual and alienating to the mass of readers, and just as falsely comforting to those in the club. In place of centuries of straightforward class discrimination, the 20th century invented an elitist rhetoric intelligible to only the most diligent and educated of readers – a club that doesn’t exclude anyone per se, but makes you work very, very hard to join. It is a Pyrrhic victory, and like all such triumphs distracts us from our much greater failures. Contemporary novels have either counterfeited reality, or forfeited it. In their stead we need a new materialism.

And this “new materialism” is? Come on, we’re hanging here. It’s a total cop out to bring this up and then not comment further. This bit is telling: “My feeling here is that the last thing readers need is a writer telling them what to read (besides his or her own books, of course).” A writer who can’tell me what to read “besides his or her own books” is a complete tool. I hope Peck isn’t suggesting that his books are the only ones offering this “new materialism.” In that case, all the attention-getting reviews he’s written are really nothing more than a lengthy advertising campaign for his own work. In this piece Peck has gamely tackled criticisms of his reviews. Now he has to elaborate on this “new materialism” thing or he risks losing whatever credibility he has left.


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