Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe I’ve ever mentioned Dale Peck on this blog. That’s mostly because every time I consider it I hear a little Johnsonian voice in my head:
I would advise you Sir, to study algebra, if you are not already an adept in it: your head would be less muddy, and you will leave off tormenting your neighbours about PECK, while we all live together in a world that is bursting with sin and sorrow.
Nevertheless, I’m going to make an exception today because Robert McFarlane has some really useful things to say in this week’s TLS:
The recurrent problem with Peck’s denunciations of bad writing, however, is that they are themselves badly written. He excels at the metaphoric mix-up. In an aggressive essay on Sven Birkerts he warns that “a critic whose own hands are stained with so much carelessly spilled ink ought to be more careful about the mud he flings”. Just so. In a self-justifying afterword concerning his critical belligerence, he observes that: “My sharpest barbs tend to be directed at writers I genuinely admire, or in whom I see genuine, wasted talent. This is because I think of myself as kind of mother hen, not so much of writers, but of the novel itself. Fiction is like dance: it’s susceptible to the egos of its practitioners.” Faced with this paragraph — moving as it does with such spellbinding clumsiness between harpooning, poultry and dance — one might conclude that Dale Peck is not a man to trust on matters of literary tone.
Exactly! I must admit, though, that I’ve read essays by Peck that don’t include these faults, which means I’m continually trying to decide whether he’s a buffoon or a serious critic. I’m not bothered by his much-commented-on cruelty; the bigger problem for me is his bad writing and (since they’re inseparable) bad thinking.
McFarlane is also good on James Wood, whom he (and I) prefers to Peck, though not without reservations:
What shaped the nineteenth-century novel, Wood declares, was that it had something to push against — something “to comprehend and to resist.” By implication, the contemporary novel has nothing to “resist”; there are no new forces of “oppression.” Existing as it does within a frictionless torrent of trivia, it has lost its shape and its purpose; or rather, it has become a muscle-bound, brainless parody of itself, bulked up on the steroids of data and story. But, what, one wants to ask Wood, of the “oppressions” which have so palpably afflicted the past forty years? The oppressions of rapacious consumerism, say, or of autocratic governments, or, at the level of the individual, of depression.
McFarlane may be overstating the case, but there’s a more than a kernel of truth here. Just because novelists aren’t resisting doesn’t mean there’s nothing to resist. And too, I like his summary of Wood’s notion of “hysterical realism.”
Finally, McFarlane turns to Critics at Work, a volume of sixteen interviews with American “cultural critics,” which for him immediately provokes “a nostalgic fondness for Dale Peck.” Says McFarlane, “The content of the interviews falls short even of the entertainment so awkwardly advertised by their titles.”
I’ve often felt the same about academic papers. If it’s imagination you’re after, you’ll find more of it in fiction and poetry; if you want funny, clever, or topical, you’ll have better luck with the popular press. Why should someone who’s spent a lifetime understanding, say, Proust, want to bore us with his jokes and puns? Ugh! Is there a scholar in the house? What do you have to tell us about Proust?
Not sure why this turned into a rant, but there you have it …