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?


  1. Short answer: No.

    Long answer: A reviewer need not like contemporary fiction in order to tell me which books are less bad than others. Peck’s review, however, doesn’t really help me decide whether or not I want to check out Moody’s latest. But then again, I am more interested in what he goes on to rant about than I am in Moody’s latest.

    Peck now goes into my Anthony Lane file: reviewers who make me laugh and whose potshots I take childish pleasure in but whose opinions I don’t necessarily trust. (That said, I was surprised at how often I found I agreed with him, though I have more respect for D. Barthelme and Powers than he does, less for Barth.)

    My visceral reaction is that his bitter, personally peeved exaggeration of the state of contemporary fic. makes for more valuable reading than many of the fence-straddlers you read in the NYT Book Review and elsewhere. I think it was Anne Tyler who said somewhere that she never writes a negative review because “life is too short for that.” No, Anne–life is too short to waste time reading bad books.

  2. I keep meaning to post my long answer on here. And I keep running out of time.

    I don’t know if a reviewer’s job needs to be to “tell me which books are less bad than others” — indeed, to borrow a basic concept from acting and writing classes (which is I grant overused, but instructive still), I prefer a critic who can “show” rather than “tell” — which generally means illumination over rating, analysis, penetration, comparison, and so forth over a rehearsal (here’s the critics’ biggest problem) of the reviewer’s own reactions (excited by, bored by, hooked by) couched in universal language.

    Not to say that those reactions don’t inform the critic’s every move — only a dishonest or inhumanly removed reader could do otherwise. But since one person’s hypnotically lyrical narrative style can be another’s obnoxiously purple logorreah, I’m only really interested in some good argument about what the big words in question are setting about doing. Absolutely, I want opinion about whether they’re succesful. But in a sense, it’s the least important part of the review for me — because if I’m interested in what the writer is about, I’m likely to get the book, whether or not the critic thinks they pulled it off.

    Life is too short for bad books, but it’s also too short to miss out on the books that people other than myself think are bad because their tastes differ from mine (I heard many abuses of DF Wallace before reading Infinite Jest. Wish I hadn’t waited.) And some of those people have sensibilities otherwise in tune with me would still recommend shit I’d hate (Richard Ford, say) and spurn a writer I love (like C.P. Snow).

    De gustibus and all that — mind you, my point is that simply endorsing and dismissing won’t do; look at the fruitlessness of much of Harold Bloom’s stuff when he’s in his A-True-Genius-May-Properly-Evaluate-All-Art mode. An amazing critic and rhetorical artist who frequently dispenses summary judgement without the least attempt to engage the critical faculty of his reader. It’s not criticism — it’s just listmaking (and Bloom may be entitled, but it doesn’t work for me; his verdicts mystify rather than illuminate).

    That should make me against Peck, but I’m not, exactly. I do think that when he calls Delillo “stupid — just plain stupid”, he’s either being disingenuous or else he’s throwing the literary equivalent of a conniption fit. It’s fine to say that Don D. isn’t as intelligent or sophisticated as he’s made out to be (I might even be inclined to agree, without really knowing why), but only if you give me some idea of the grounds on which you’re so doing. I’ve read at least two Delillo novels with pleasure (haven’t gotten around to underworld), so I’m an audience in some need of convincing.

    In a passage like this, Peck’s just grandstanding: he’s unable to maintain his avowed rhetorical stance while actually delivering critical goods. I suppose it’s entertaining — but while, Kathleen, I don’t really care about whether it is appropriate in “in a piece that’s arguably supposed to tell whether to buy Moody’s latest or not”; I just care whether it’s thoughtful. Some of his points about postmodernism seem to be, but they’re so mixed in with stuff like this that he undermines his own game.

    So Peck’s article is a half-success: and I read it with enjoyment, if not edification (does “with” go with “edification?” Probably not. Oh well.) I agree, Mariah, with your statement that it’s good fun in spots but not evidence of reliable judgement — but as I say, I’m not sure I’m as after “judgement” as you are. And Anthony Lane writes some smart and penetrating little essays. I wish Peck had a little of his keenness; because while I laughed at his ranting antics, and appreciated the truths he touched on, I felt he leaned on the rant, and was satisfied to give truth a cursory brush.

  3. Thanks so much, you two, for comments that are far more thoughtful and complex than my original post. Mariah, I’ve been pondering your position since you posted it, and have been surprised to find myself agreeing with much of it. My gut reaction to the piece was, well, if you feel that American fiction has gotten this far off the track — a proposal I’m prepared to entertain, given some of the dreck that has gotten notice in recent years based solely on its approximation of terminal disaffection and incurable irony — then perhaps we’d all be better served by a careful examination of the “what has gone wrong” than we would be by an assessment of the latest example of that wrongness. So I suppose my question misstated the issue for me, which was less that Moody’s book should have been handed over to someone who was a fan of DFW, Moody, Franzen, etc., than that the “what has gone wrong” aspect of the piece seemed to me — to advert to Peck’s own rhetoric — just plain wrong.

    Again, I’m actually quite sympathetic to several of Peck’s points — I do think that much of what passes for postmodernist fiction is sterile formalist blather that fails to confront in any serious fashion the stark realities of human pain. And I do think that, in large part, the whiteness and maleness of postmodernism is symptomatic of an angry and insular response to the much-decried identity politics of the sixties and seventies, a way of (perhaps unconsciously) reasserting hierarchy and privilege in the guise of experimentalism.

    That having been said, I disagree with a substantive number of his judgments of the writers he lambasts, and the vitriol that overtakes others of those judgments winds up emptying them of the content that might allow me to concur. To refer to DeLillo’s work as “stupid” is, to me, incomprehensible; at times ponderous, perhaps, and overwrought, and maybe even pretentious, sure — but stupid? Likewise, the suggestion that Powers’ work has no “empathetic undercurrent” is baffling to me, after reading Operation Wandering Soul.

    The absence of what you call thoughtfulness, BT, in his rapid-fire dismissals of writers I’ve found more moving than he seems to think possible makes me feel similarly dismissive of his general position, despite finding his reading of Moody hysterical. His assessments begin feel to me like intentional misreadings, which is what makes me start wondering about Peck’s feeling for contemporary fiction in general, and whether his failure to appreciate what it’s up to at all makes his ranting, to me, useless.

  4. This is something of a tangent, but perhaps plays off of what Bill wrote. All this makes me wonder about the function of a review. Is it to help us decide whether we want to buy or read a book? This could on one level be a version of “thumbs up/thumbs down” and it seems to me that it’s perhaps part of what I’m looking for from a review but not everything I’m looking for.

    Or is the function of a review to evaluate the success of the book, its worthiness as a finished text? Or is it to contextualize the book for us, to help us see how it fits into a larger whole? These need not be mutually exclusive, of course, and the last two might help us decide whether we want to buy the book, but are the factors of the “success” and the context essential elements of a review? Just wondering.

    I wonder what would happen if we considered film reviews – which so often have the “thumbs up/thumbs down” or three stars out of four rating. Are we satisfied with these ratings as the essential element of the review (which seem to me to be only about the “success” of the film) or do we also desire context? I don’t see much context in film reviews, only in the very best.

  5. It’s true, Steve– these are multiple and sometimes conflicting characteristics of a rather broad and heterogenous class of writing we call the “review.” And we do, I think, tend to see film reviews that are less about context and more about the reviewer’s (relatively unexamined) sense of satisfaction — or in the worst cases, the reviewer’s rather programmatic estimation of what an average reader would like. Two reviewers I think are really different are J. Hoberman in the Voice, who, love him or hate him, writes about the film and filmmaker, and context, and says little in the way of thumbs up or thumbs down. This isn’t to say he’s wishy washy — it’s just that his version of analysis isn’t much concerned with giving the film a grade.

    The other reviewer (who now does mostly TV for Esquire) is Tom Carson, who does do yea-or-nay style opinions, but always so carefully embeds them in an essay that explores what’s interesting (good or bad) about the movie and its context that I almost don’t care about the recommendation at the end. Plus, he’s really, really funny.

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