It’s not exactly news that a lot of symbolic violence gets played out in literary criticism, but the ironically titled collection of Dale Peck’s reviews, Hatchet Jobs: Cutting Through Contemporary Literature, reiterates the point with a knowing wink. Peck, the current laureate of critical evisceration, propelled himself to the epicenter of book-world buzz with his slashing assessments of literary luminaries like David Foster Wallace, Philip Roth, and Julian Barnes. But it was one sentence in particular—“Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation”—that set the book world to fretting about the ethics of criticism, and the fretting has yet to cease. With Moody’s entrails hung from a pole, was this critical vehemence or butchery?
One problem that Hatchet Jobs raises for a reviewer is the temptation to unleash on Peck the same brand of critical aggression he himself practices, which could be fun. It certainly wouldn’t be difficult, especially since whatever aesthetic program Peck is promoting amid all the invective is actually rather mysterious. His slashing style may be invigorating compared to more measured reviewers, but if the criticisms seem a bit capricious and private agendas appear to overtake aesthetic judgment, should this collection be read as literary criticism, or is it some other genre entirely?
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 asa case study on the psychodynamics of critical aggression. Consider these passages from Peck’s notably pugilistic review of Rick Moody’s Black Veil.
Moody starts his books like a boxer talking trash before the bout, as if trying to make his opponent forget that the only thing that really matters is how hard and how well you throw your fists after the bell rings.For me, the beginning of a Rick Moody book is a bit like having a stranger walk up and smack me in the face, and then stand there waiting to see if I am man enough to separate him from his balls.
On the important question of who can separate whom from his balls, let’s just hope there are plenty of Band-Aids on hand if they try. But punch-outs preoccupied Peck well before Moody happened along—they’re the leitmotif of his family memoir, What We Lost. In fact, there are so many recurring themes between these two books that they’re like companion texts; read together, they offer a fascinating genealogy of the critical hatchet job.
“Based on a true story” according to its cover, What We Lost is about child abuse, and the child is Dale Peck—but not Dale Peck the author. The main victim is Dale Peck’s father, also named Dale Peck, who was sadistically beaten in his youth. But then there’s another Dale Peck—an earlier son of Peck Sr.’s father and his former wife—and there’s also Dale Peck, the author, both character and perpetrator (for writing a beating scene is nothing if not administering one to a character—in this case, Dad.) Everywhere you look it’s a fun house hall of mirrors of Dale Pecks, all getting beaten or beating someone else. Some are beaten by mothers, some by fathers, some by other children, but in all cases viciously, in an unwieldy confusion of names and roles, sadism and masochism, parents and children.
It’s a horror story of intergenerational family violence, but with a faintly optimistic coda. Dale Peck Sr., who became an abuser in turn—killing the family dogs with a wrench when money was short, beating a succession of wives while his son looked on, and upon learning the son was gay, beating him up too—eventually stopped drinking and reformed. What We Lost is the son’s attempt to come to terms with a legacy of paternal abuse.
A not entirely successful attempt perhaps, given the extent to which the abuse dynamic shadows Peck’s essays, and nowhere more than in the brutal review of Black Veil. A bit of case history. The inception of What We Lost was a road trip Peck took with his father in July 2001, “Moody Blues” appeared in the New Republicin June 2002, and What We Lost was published in November 2003. In other words, Peck was pummeling Moody in the midst of writing a book whose themes—a meditation on manhood, violence, and three generations of male Pecks—happen to be identical to those of Moody’s Black Veil, an investigation of masculine violence, heterosexual privilege, and Moody’s patrilineal line.
Moody’s book strikes rather close to home, and home for Peck means irrational violence. Could this be why the scathing criticisms of Moody are also so illogical? Peck derides Moody’s critique of traditional masculinity as political correctness (surprising from someone whose father beat him up for being gay), he mocks Moody’s confessions of vulnerability as if male vulnerability were inherently humiliating (as it was chez Peck), and pronounces Moody’s book “so awful that it is easy to see the book as in league with the very crimes [racism, sexism, and homophobia] that it seeks to redress.” (Why not the Holocaust?) Sibling rivalry is a familiar critic-writer scenario, but here it’s as though the sibling had been projected into the brutal childhood world of What We Lost and subjected to its ritual abuses too, alongside all the unfortunate Dale Pecks.
There’s always something perversely gripping about people acting things out in public, and if residues of Peck’s family horror show seep into his brand of critical vehemence, that’s one of the things that makes his writing compelling—if more buzz-producing than critically significant. It’s Peck’s habit of turning these propensities into moral high-grounding that wears thin. Take his sanctimony about Philip Roth’s attitudes toward women in American Pastoral. (“It’s not really the misogyny in this passage that takes the breath away as much as it is the gynophobia…“)
Then you come across Peck interviewed at Gawker.com, referring to a previous interviewer as “Elizabeth Manus or man-slut or whatever her name was,” and to Jessa Crispin, who runs the weblog Bookslut.com, as “ditch-dirty stupid,” and renaming her “Jessa Crisp-Tits.” Does writing critical takedowns somehow exempt the critic from his own standards? Or perhaps Peck’s playing another game, doling out castigation and then soliciting it, re-creating the circle of abuse that gives What We Lost its narrative structure and makes reading Hatchet Jobs mostly feel like more of the same.
Peck is hardly the first writer to enlist a congenial cultural form in the effort to repair injuries and redeem losses: Transforming such experiences and emotions into other idioms and forms is part of what makes culture emotionally resonant. But when a writer bends existing genres to suit such purposes, the critical question—and perhaps a larger question for criticism itself—is this: At what point does transformation fail, leaving a writer mired in psychodrama and family repetition?
“Like all of Moody’s books, [Black Veil] is pretentious, muddled, derivative, bathetic,” writes Peck, capturing precisely the globalizing tone of the hypercritical, emotionally abusive parent. The language of criticism is first learned in families (our earliest critics, after all), and who escapes unscathed from these lovely scenes? Brutality is forever tempting for just such reasons, offering the opportunity to disavow one’s own history of vulnerability and injury while producing it in others. Peck now says he’s giving up the pain game; like his father, he intends to reform. But can his readers? If big stick literary criticism fills a certain cultural niche (despite not elucidating much in the end), it’s because such attractions aren’t Peck’s patrimony alone.