Dale Peck has been pissing people off with his literary criticism for some time now. Stanley Crouch once bitch slapped him in a bar. The stories go on. But he’s always interesting. Gary Sernovitz has written a nice essay explaining why.
Dale Peck can be a very good critic. When he angrily scrawls, “Lies! Lies! All lies!” on the cover of Rick Moody’s The Black Veil, it’s not right, it’s not justified, it probably hurts the book’s resale value, but it’s good: Dale Peck genuinely cares about fiction. He writes forcefully and directly, without any academic fussiness and often with surprise. (One novel’s tensionless structure is “like playing racquetball in a court with no walls.”) Peck is enlightening about black women writers’ rise into prominence, for example, or the trap of being a cult writer like Kurt Vonnegut. In his best essays, Peck celebrates books’ successes and laments (without joy) their failures on clear, common, deeply-felt criteria: their characters’ vitality and complexity, the credibility and balance of their drama, the closeness of their observation, their humor, their prose, their pace. Even when using his axe, Peck can reveal insights into the novel as a form. For instance, Peck writes that Julian Barnes “is a terribly smart man and a terribly, terribly skilled writer, if by smart you mean a mind that has ready access to its wide store of information and by skilled you mean a writer who can manipulate words so that they simultaneously sound familiar and original.” However, “intelligence and talent in the service of a discompassionate temperament… are precisely the opposite of what one seeks from a novelist, or a novel.” Finally, Peck convincingly laments that his essays, literary criticism in general, and in particular his notorious review on Rick Moody’s The Black Veil, are too often discussed in terms of personality and gossip. “I realized that people,” he writes, “were less interested in what I (or the writers I reviewed) had to say than the possibility of a brawl.”