Thursday, May 27, 2004

Reviewing the Reviewers

We got in the new book by Dale Peck today at my bookstore. Dale Peck (for those who don't know) is the infamous book reviewer responsible for some of the most stridently vitriolic prose about contemporary fiction around. He has written, for example, both that Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation and that David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is not work the paper its printed on. His book of collected lit crit is called (ironically enough or not, whatever) “Hatchet Jobs” and includes endorsements from, amongst others, Susan Sontag.

In her quote, Sontag talks about how Dale Peck is an important literary critic and she appreciates his especial attention vis a vis misogyny. For his focus on misogyny, Peck should perhaps be lauded, but the simple fact of that matter is, he’s not a critic. He’s not even a reviewer. He is to the book review what talk radio is to NPR: perhaps more entertaining, but full of sound and fury, signifying absolutely diddley squat.

It is Peck's right to have his opinions, and to hate much of contemporary American fiction. It is somone else's right to publish his rantings, but they should know that what they are getting is a showman, a leech schooled in the art of controversy. What bothers me about Dale Peck is this: It is a vile practice to make money pissing on the labor of others. It is doubly disgusting if you have nothing to give to your audience and nothing to advocate for on behalf of the art your criticize. And Peck doesn’t. He rarely (if ever) chooses one of the millions of books out there to champion. All he has to give is his wit, which he puts in the service of furthering an incredibly narrow view of what writing is acceptable.

His criticisms are also often facile, and he takes advantage of liberals’ lack of confidence in their own tastes. When the New York Times Magazine praised Peck’s “work” (such that it is) they said that you can’t read one of his reviews and not have your opinions challenged, shaken up, forever altered. They’re wrong. You can have your opinions challenged by Peck if you didn’t really believe them in the first place. People who read Rick Moody because other people read Rick Moody will indeed be challenged by some random frustrated novelist calling him “the worst writer of his generation”. Someone who reads Rick Moody because they love Rick Moody will recognize a self-promoting, controversy inviting performance artist when they see one. (For what it’s worth, I’ve never read Rick Moody.)

Or take his critique of “Infinite Jest” (I have read, and very much liked this book). He starts his review from what seems like an understanding place. He writes about how some people like Pynchon and some don’t and he (Peck) doesn’t. He then explains why he doesn’t. He then explains that DF Wallace loves Pynchon and out-Pynchons Pynchon. Okay, you think, he doesn’t like the book, but he’ll explain it from the point of view of the anxiety of influence etc. and so forth. But no, instead we are treated to sentence after sentence of cleverly crafted poison. D Foster W’s Infinite Jest may not be more than the sum of its parts, but to completely degrade every part in a sweeping “paper its printed on” bon mot is to prize appearing smart over being smart and reading David FW’s book.

Dale Peck is the Simon Cowell of the literary establishment-- getting famous for being unjustifiably cruel to people who have done nothing more than try to express themselves through art.

Compare this to the reviewing of John Leonard. For some time now, Leonard has been churning out great prose in the service of critiquing great prose in the back pages of Harper’s Magazine. Leonard is, quite simply, the most exquisite book reviewer around. Regardless of whether or not he likes the book (or you’re interest level in the subject matter) Leonard’s critiques are always elegantly written. He can write fascinatingly about the Haitian Revolution one month, switch to Richard Powers the next and hover around a new biography of Philip K. Dick in the third.

Leonard is also great because he is a champion of the obscure, rather than a degrader of the obvious. He chooses books that you may not have heard of, or that pique his interest, or that fit in with other books he’s pretty sure his readership will like. You’ll never read a review of the latest Joyce Carol Oates because who needs another review of Joyce Carol Oates? In this way, Leonard avoids being stuck in the Kakutani-Peck continuum. Both Michiko Kakutani (New York Times) and Dale Peck are trapped in the establishment. They’re either too busy justifying and encouraging it (Kakutani) or trying to set it on fire (Peck) that they never really notice that their job is actually to advocate for the reader, not themselves or their industry.

John Leonard is an excellent advocate for his readership, while at the same time remaining an elegant writer himself. Take his column from this month's Harpers. It features three books that I’ve never heard of (and I work in a book store). One is a biography of Philip K. Dick, one is a biography of Dylan Thomas and one is a historical novel about Henry James from 1895 to 1899. Besides connecting these books by theme, we then get a recurring theme throughout the piece on Leonard’s thoughts on his own generation’s failings. Example (from the section on Dylan Thomas): “We only thought the sixties were so self-destructive because we forgot about the equally deranged forties and fifties, with hydrogen bombs and Elvis and the Beats, jazz musicians strung out on heroin and race, abstract expressionists slashing at the rain-forest landscapes in their very sore heads, poets lost to lithium, loony bins, and suicide, and the rest of us complicit in our celebration of their excess. We egged them on. They were the fuel we burned.”

No other reviewer writes like John Leonard, and that is why no other reviewer is quite as deserving of his readership as John Leonard.

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