Mirroring many other branches of society, literary reviewing has taken on an increasingly acrimonious tone. Lionel Trilling said: “The poet may be used as a barometer, but let us not forget that he is also part of the weather.” The same may be true of modern critics and book reviewers, to judge by the controversy surrounding Dale Peck's Hatchet Jobs.
Peck's Hatchet Jobs reproduces twelve essays that appeared between 1995 and 2002 in The New Republic, the London Review of Books, and The Village Voice. The essays’ prior publication, making Peck notorious as a literary axman, enabled him to anticipate critical response to the book. In an introduction and an afterward, he counterattacks his attackers, principally Heidi Julavits, coeditor of The Believer literary magazine.
In March, 2003, Julavits launched a ninety-two-hundred-word protest against “cruelty and pettiness” in book reviews, a style she dubbed “snark” after Lewis Carroll's mythical animal. She singled out Peck for his “invective against Rick Moody …in The New Republic.” That review of Moody's The Black Veil: A Memoir with Digressions (2002) begins with the line most deplored by Peck's adversaries: “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.” Introducing Hatchet Jobs, Peck recalls with seeming pride how the essay on Moody, reprinted in the book, “raised a ruckus in the publishing world.” He goes on to chide Julavits, Moody, their ally Dave Eggers, and others associated with The Believer for “their massive literary advances and domination of display and review space.” Another author savaged by Peck did not confine his rejoinder to print: In July, 2004, novelist Stanley Crouch, targeted by Peck in a hit piece called “American Booty,” publicly slapped Peck and threatened worse.
Another observation Trilling made in the 1950's is also pertinent to the early twenty-first century: “It is now life and not art that requires the willing suspension of disbelief.” Still, it is hard to believe one's eyes on reading such sneers as these in Hatchet Jobs: “Terry McMillan's How Stella Got Her Groove Back is the most lazily written book I’ve ever read. Some people—namely, the book's publishers—might be inclined to characterize its style as ’breathless,’ but I think of it as a panting, gasping, protracted death rattle.” In another piece, Peck taunts: “[Sven] Birkerts trots out all his allusions and factlets and trivia, regardless of accuracy, relevance or extraneousness, with the tinkling insistence of a 5-year-old learning to play ’Chopsticks.’” The diatribe against Birkerts builds up, or down, to this: “ready, Sven? I’ve been saving this up …with friends like this, literature needs an enema. Ooh, that was probably a bit much, huh?”
Malicious reviews calling attention to the reviewers’ cleverness are nothing new. In 1948, Stanley Edgar Hyman mocked Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station (1940), saying the book “might have been called ’Men Who Made Our Marxism and Sold to the Junior Literary Guild.’” In 1958, Dwight Macdonald satirized James Gould Cozzens's dialogue as “two grunt-and-groan wrestlers heaving their ponderous bulks around without ever getting a grip on each other.” Generally, however, preeminent reviewers of the past have adhered to something like T. S. Eliot's dictum in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that “Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry.” Wilfrid Sheed affirmed in “The Art of Reviewing” that “Certain decencies should be observed.”
With many targets of malicious reviews fighting fire with fire—abandoning thoughtful analysis and basic courtesy for spite and nastiness—it becomes increasingly difficult to sort out true literary evaluation from such sharp exchanges. One of Peck's critics, a professor of media studies who clearly has delved into psychology, purports to subject Peck to psychological rather than literary analysis. Argues Laura Kipnis, “Given how compulsively confessional Peck has been in print—frequent interviews, a family memoir, constant self-reference in the reviews themselves—one way of reading Hatchet Jobs is as a case study on the psychodynamics of critical aggression.” From her reading of Peck's memoir, What We Lost (2003), Kipnis notes that Peck grew up in an emotionally abusive and physically violent household, and that his savage criticism of Moody captures “precisely the globalizing tone of the hypercritical, emotionally abusive parent.” After this analysis, Kipnis vows to resist “the temptation to unleash on Peck...
(The entire section is 1936 words.)