Should a reviewer of contemporary fiction actually be required to, say, like contemporary fiction?
The question is raised for me by Dale Peck’s review of Rick Moody’s The Black Veil, steered my way by faithful reader BT. The review is not so much a review as a skewering, and not so much a skewering as an explosion of bile and vitriol. From the very first line:
Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.
And a bit further on:
When I finished The Black Veil I scrawled “Lies! Lies! All lies!” on the cover and considered my job done.
If, however, the strongest conclusion that I drew from this review was that Dale Peck really, really, really doesn’t like Rick Moody, I’d say hey, to each his own, whatever. I read The Ice Storm (granted, after having seen the movie), and enjoyed and appreciated much about it — for instance, I did not find the novel, as Peck does, to have “a troubling fascination with adolescent sexual organs” so much as a concern with the ways that adolescents’ preoccupation with their own sexual organs is driven by the simultaneously prurient and passionless obsessions of the grownups who are ostensibly raising them — but that’s a matter of interpretation and taste. Peck doesn’t like Moody. Whatever.
But then there’s this, when Peck attempts to figure out how American literary culture can have gone so wrong as to lionize such a pathetic figure as Moody:
In my view, the wrong turn starts around the time Stephen Dedalus goes to college in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and echoes all the way through Don DeLillo’s ponderously self-important rendering of Bobby Thompson’s shot heard round the world in the opening chapter of Underworld.
In fact, the article, by its conclusion, comes to damn contemporary writers by association the entire lineage of twentieth-century fiction dating back to Joyce:
All I’m suggesting is that these writers (and their editors) see themselves as the heirs to a bankrupt tradition. A tradition that began with the diarrheic flow of words that is Ulysses; continued on through the incomprehensible ramblings of late Faulkner and the sterile inventions of Nabokov; and then burst into full, foul life in the ridiculous dithering of Barth and Hawkes and Gaddis, and the reductive cardboard constructions of Barthelme, and the word-by-word wasting of a talent as formidable as Pynchon’s; and finally broke apart like a cracked sidewalk beneath the weight of the stupid — just plain stupid — tomes of DeLillo.
Peck’s not wholly off base, I think, in his assessment of postmodernism as a “white man’s ivory tower,” or in his suggestion that the dominance of this select group of writers has skewed the contemporary high-literary scene toward sterile experimentation devoid of affect and compassion. But one nonetheless wonders how useful this kind of judgment is in a piece that arguably supposed to tell whether to buy Moody’s latest or not.
So again, the question: should a reviewer of contemporary fiction actually be required to like contemporary fiction?