canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Hatchet Jobs: Writing on Contemporary Fiction
by Dale Peck

The New Press, 2004

Reviewed by Alex Boyd

Reviewing isnít easy. Thereís the right balance of honesty and diplomacy to find, determining if youíre judging a book according to the goals it sets for itself rather than your ideas, and the effort to write a piece that stands on its own as an interesting piece of writing, beyond providing a report. There are hours of work involved, from reading the book and making notes to writing and editing the piece. And when youíre done, the response is often as though you mailed a letter into a black hole, unless a reply comes in the form of a pissed author taking it personally. But thereís something enjoyable about the challenge of wrestling with a book, and yourself. If thatís the one compelling reason to write reviews, thank God for it. Poet and essayist Dana Gioia notes that criticism and creativity "reinforce one another," that "informed and demanding discussion" are essential and without it "well-intentioned regional literati usually practice boosterism Ė the uncritical praise of all things local. Boosterism is not merely a poor substitute for arts criticism, it is also its opposite, a slow poison to native excellence."

Dale Peck has more than once been accused of lighting firecrackers in class. And heís well known for one comment in particular, which Iíll address later in the hope of a balanced review. Hatchet Jobs is a mixed bag of a dozen articles, but Iíll start with what I appreciated about the book. Peck doesnít borrow a lofty voice or hide in the thicket of excess verbiage, potential defense mechanisms always available to reviewers. Itís a sharp and even funny critic who says, "reading the book was a bit like channel surfing, but the remote was in someone elseís hand." His conversational yet articulate voice uncovers ideas, such as speculation as to why twentieth century fiction is shorter: "The single most important literary convention of the twentieth century was the double-spaced paragraph break. That gap could stand for anything: sex, sleep, a tedious taxi journey between apartment and opera house." And hereís Peck on the epic novel:

"Readers of epics keep turning pages for the simple reason that they can. The end of the story isnít merely postponed in a true epic: it is, in some fundamental way, denied. In denying that the story ever ends, the epic denies also that the Real Story Ė to put it bluntly, life Ė will come to an end, and for a population looking to replace a god it doesnít really believe in but unable to get their insurance to cover a therapist, a $4.95 paperback helps fill the gap."

He cuts straight to the point, reading Infinite Jest and summarizing how Ė despite the length of the book Ė very little happens in the various plots: "There is first of all Hal Incandenza, a teenaged tennis prodigy and marijuana addict who during the course of the book plays tennis and gets high a lot, then stops getting high Ė thatís his plot," and eventually suggesting "I think in fact that thereís a pretty good satire lurking inside Infinite Jest, but itís lost inside about 800 pages of crap." Agree or disagree, itís useful for a reader to know the book will involve tremendous digressions.

Our sound bite culture is at least partly responsible for making "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation," the literary mushroom cloud that it is. Remarks in the afterword allow insight into what Peck might have been thinking: "Bad writers canít do much damage because theyíll simply be ignored, but a self-indulgent writer with a single compelling skill can do incalculable harm." But the review fails for going off on too many incomplete tangents, not to mention requiring further explanation found elsewhere in the book. Peck does acknowledge that heís not even going to try and write an objective or even "rational" review, though these should have been first words, not two paragraphs in when he knows heís already hooked the reader. In a review of a Julian Barnes book, Peck hints at reserving most of his disdain for perceived misuse of talent, suggesting that "intelligence and talent in the service of a discompassionate temperament Ö are precisely the opposite of what one seeks from a novelist, or a novel." By the end of the Barnes review, heís dismissed the entire "current crop of British novelists [who] managed to ruin the British novel." Peck is immensely readable, but I hope heíll stop firing off unsupported statements. He does find tangible flaws in the opening paragraph of the Moody book ("the indefinite Ďa waiterí followed by the definite Ďthat timeí: is he remembering a specific occasion, or is he not?"), and youíd think an opening paragraph would be flawless, but itís still a long way to "the worst writer of his generation."

Peckís occasional harshness fuels the theory that authors write reviews to deflate competitors, a convenient theory that often fits the facts, though that doesnít make it correct at any given time. Reviewing is an imperfect process where we bring our life experience and a host of instincts to a book, but ideally attempt to be objective. I do believe we need criticism, and in Canada it tends to be polite summary, particularly with established writers, even as reviewers who demonstrate a backbone and avoid getting personal can be labelled mean-spirited. Even established critics can be overly delicate in reviewing books. Philip Marchand has described a Canadian novel as "a salad bar of literary genres, served up with the raw dressing of irony." A book can be a brilliant collage or an awful mess, but it is certainly not a salad bar, and the retreat into neutral metaphor is unfortunate. At times, criticism simply gives permission, allowing people to feel they arenít alone in their views. Dissenting voices may not always be correct, but theyíre important, at least because the ability to speak out is the difference between a community and a mob. In reading Peck, I appreciated the reminder I donít have to worship at the altar of Ulysses, and we donít all have to use the same stepping-stones to become writers. An old professor of mine used to say, "donít treat anything as the gospel, not even the gospel," useful advice for anyone, reviewed or reviewing, and ten words that might be said to summarize Dale Peckís philosophy.

If Peck crosses the line on occasion, he isnít alone. A search online shows reviewers of Hatchet Jobs canít resist layman psychological analysis of Peck. Maybe the current world of blogs and Amazon reviews helped blur the line between personal and professional, and weíll see a lot more personal reviews. Then again, maybe not. Peck swears off "negative" reviews in the introduction (shame he confuses negative with nasty). He explains in the afterword, "The very extremity of my reviews 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." If he offers "a series of prohibitions," itís because writers shouldnít write to belong to "a tradition or a program or a school rather than to describe whatís wrong with the worldÖ As one reads contemporary novelists one canít 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 Ė the exaggerated panache with which teenaged boys shoot hoops in their driveway while pretending they donít know their neighbor is watching from across the street." And certainly, as our culture becomes increasingly visual, fiction writers who feel marginalized could lose sight of the audience, as we sometimes already see with poetry, further marginalized, and occasionally dense enough to be a private project catapulted into the public sphere.

There is a sense of progression in the book. Peckís final review of Rebecca Brownís Excepts from a Family Medical Dictionary is thoughtful, even peaceful, framed by his reminiscence of small town Tribune: "One time it rained and the desert flowers revealed their pale pink and violet flowers for a few hours. Another time it didnít rain for so long that the ground lifted up and blew away in a twenty-four hour tidal wave of dust." And then in the afterword he allows himself to take a less certain tone, throwing out the occasional question to the reader ("If we can accept that we build on our predecessorís strengths, then why canít we accept that we might build on their mistakes as well?"). To understand Dale Peck and his argument, do what youíd do with any narrative, skip to the end. I think if he continues to write criticism at all, weíll continue to see honest work, but more balanced work too. He might be passionate and direct, but he isnít stupid, and there has been an immense response to his criticism. I suspect Peck has realized he doesnít have to slap people down when itís enough to be an honest part of the conversation.

Alex Boyd is co-editor of Northern Poetry Review







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