Dale Peck casts himself as the saviour of modern fiction, but his firecracker reviews end up merely spitting at a few B-listers. Jonathan Heawood sticks his neck on the blockby Jonathan Heawood / September 26, 2004 / Leave a comment
In July 2002, the New Republic ran a review of Rick Moody’s novel The Black Veil which began with the (for Moody) unforgettable words: “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.” The review, by the novelist Dale Peck, went on to say: “The Black Veil is the worst of Rick Moody’s very bad books.” It was a comprehensive hatchet job, yet – as Peck guilelessly complains – it has been remembered in literary circles largely for its opening sentence.
Peck, who has called himself “one of the best writers around,” attracted widespread abuse for the vehemence of his attack on Moody. The novelist Stanley Crouch, who had been skewered by Peck, described him as a “troubled queen.” But the most celebrated contribution to this battle of the books was also the longest and the most belated – a 9,000-word essay by Heidi Julavits in the March 2003 issue of the US magazine the Believer. She listed Peck among a number of writers who used book reviews as an opportunity “to appear funny and smart and a little bit bitchy, without attempting to espouse any higher ideals – or even try to understand… what a certain book is trying to do, even if it does it badly.” She called these reviewers “snarks,” and instituted a “snarkwatch” feature in the Believer, which wryly set out to raise reviewing standards.
Peck was not slow to make the link between Julavits’s attack and her involvement with the McSweeney’s set of young American writers, who are now the explicit focus for his ire. In the review, he placed Moody at the dog-end of a literary inheritance stretching from “the diarrhoeic flow of words that is Ulysses” to the “stupid – just plain stupid – tomes” of Don DeLillo, via Nabokov, Barth, Barthelme and Gaddis. Peck thinks that all these writers have been strutting around for too long in the invisible lingerie of high modernism. He casts himself as the whistleblower, prefacing this volume of reviews – 12 excoriations and a eulogy – with a defensive epigraph from William Carlos Williams: “All I said was: there, you see, it is broken.”
He is pictured on the cover of the book with his well worn axe slung over his shoulder, giving zero credibility to his promise in the introduction that he has now buried the hatchet. Indeed, some commentators have noted a cycle of…