Hatchet Jobs: Cutting Through Contemporary Literature

Overview

Since the initial publication of Hatchet Jobs, the groves of literary criticism have echoed with the clatter of steel on wood. From heated panels at Book Expo in Chicago to contretemps at writers’ watering holes in New York, voices—even fists—have been raised.

Peck’s bracing philippic proposes that contemporary literature is at a dead end. Novelists have forfeited a wider audience, succumbing to identity politicking and self-reflexive postmodernism. In the torrent of responses ...

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Overview

Since the initial publication of Hatchet Jobs, the groves of literary criticism have echoed with the clatter of steel on wood. From heated panels at Book Expo in Chicago to contretemps at writers’ watering holes in New York, voices—even fists—have been raised.

Peck’s bracing philippic proposes that contemporary literature is at a dead end. Novelists have forfeited a wider audience, succumbing to identity politicking and self-reflexive postmodernism. In the torrent of responses to this fulguration, opinions were not so much divided as cleaved in two with, for example, Carlin Romano contending that “Peck’s judgments are worse than nasty—they are hysterical” and Benjamin Schwarz retorting that “in his meticulous attention to diction, his savage wit, his exact and rollicking prose and his disdain for pseudointellectual flatulence, Dale Peck is Mencken’s heir.”

Hatchet Jobs includes swinging critiques of the work of, among others, Sven Birkerts, Julian Barnes, Philip Roth, Colson Whitehead, Jim Crace, Stanley Crouch, and Rick Moody.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Dale Peck may have an ego the size of Montana. He may have annoyed half the known literary world with his screeds on other writers. But he may also be one of our most adventurous and singularly talented writers working today." &#8212San Francisco Chronicle

"Alive, crackling and sparkling with electric energy . . .  Peck’s style is classic American, a jivey mix of rhetoric and spontaneity." &#8212The Washington Post

"Peck challenges received critical wisdom with energy, fire, and unmitigated gall. Behind the loudmouth cynicism is an idealist who’d open a hill of literary oysters in search of a single pearl." &#8212The Boston Globe

The New Yorker
Peck has pledged not to write any more vicious reviews of the sort that have recently earned him notoriety. On the evidence of this collection, this is not a cause for regret. The earlier pieces here—assessments of novels by Kurt Vonnegut, Michael Cunningham, and David Foster Wallace—tend to be stronger; in later ones, the attacks feel like a shtick, an impression enhanced by the front-cover photograph, of the author holding an axe. The merits of Peck’s reviewing style—passion, wit, and contrarian zeal—are usually outweighed by its defects: endless, baffling plot synopses, a questionable grasp of literary history, and a tendency to use authors’ weaker books to damn their entire outputs. Worryingly, when Peck quotes paragraphs of other writers’ work to show how bad they are, the prose is often more absorbing than his own.
Publishers Weekly
New York novelist Peck has published four previous books (most recently a memoir, What We Lost, in 2003), but none of them has achieved the notoriety of his acid reviews of contemporary fiction writers. Recently Heidi Julavits, co-editor of The Believer, castigated Peck for his "snark" in a widely read manifesto, and James Atlas wrote a quizzical, marveling profile of Peck for the New York Times Magazine. For the latter feature, and now this book's cover, Peck was photographed provocatively la Carrie Nation, ax in hand, and indeed there are overtones of both the Puritan and the temperance worker in Peck. The present volume collects the best of these negative reviews. According to Peck's chronology, the trouble with literature began a quarter of a century ago, roughly around the time Thomas Pynchon published Gravity's Rainbow and begat a whole slew of heartless, indulgent "masterpieces." The modernist moment over, writing has flirted with postmodern trappings while remaining secretly affianced to the worst excesses of Victorian narrative and description. "Now, what one hears hailed as an emerging new genre of writing usually turns out to be nothing more than a standard realist text inflected by a preoccupation with something or other." Peck's criticism of individual writers and marketing trends is wonderfully cogent and invective-filled; dropped into a discussion of Julian Barnes's minimalism, Peck asserts that the novels of Ian McEwan "smell worse than newspaper wrapped around old fish." In "The Moody Blues," Peck calls Rick Moody "the worst novelist of his generation," while How Stella Got Her Groove Back by Terry McMillan is a "panting, gasping, protracted death rattle-four hundred pages of unpunctuated run-on sentences about virtually nothing." Just when the reader tires of vitriol, Peck turns around and delivers a clearheaded analysis of a novel he likes, in this case Rebecca Brown's Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary, bringing to the task those qualities of sensitivity, tact and generosity he has often been accused of lacking. Peck has said that he has written his last slam, this is it, we're not going to get any more "hatchet jobs," and that's a pity on the one hand, but great news for the emperor and all his new clothes. Agent, Ricard Abate of ICM. (June) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Novelist Peck (What We Lost) opened his July 2002 New Republic review of Rick Moody's The Black Veil by observing, "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation." This hatchet job, as Peck calls it, is reprinted here with 11 other reviews written from 1995 to 2002, all of which now include even more razor-edged introductions and conclusions. Announcing at the start that he will "no longer write negative book reviews," Peck finishes his slashing career by inveighing against "Stepford novels" and lambasting Joyce's Ulysses. So this little volume becomes an instant collector's item for those who enjoy Peck's "Kill Bill" approach to the modern novel, which he describes as "hack[ing] away the deadwood in order to discover the heart of the novel." Peck's victims er subjects include Jamaica Kincaid, Julian Barnes, and Jim Crace, as well as Philip Roth and even Kurt Vonnegut. For those who like their literary criticism strong, emotional, and salty, this is essential to finish an era. Recommended for specialized and literary collections since Peck's language may be too liberated for some readers.-Shelley Cox, Southern Illinois Univ. Lib., Carbondale Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Twelve essays by the bad boy of contemporary book reviewing reveal a passionate, committed commentator who definitely has an axe to grind. So what? Like any truly interesting critic, Peck has a coherent, openly stated aesthetic position that informs everything he writes, including his novels (Now It's Time to Say Goodbye, 1998, etc.). "It all went wrong with Joyce," he believes: modernism's rejection of traditional character and narrative development was a ghastly mistake, and if he grudgingly concedes its (possible) historical necessity, he sees little but empty posing in the work of such successors as Gaddis, Pynchon, and DeLillo, pretentious windiness in the attempts of younger writers like Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, and Jonathan Lethem to employ modernist strategies yet still fulfill the novel's historic role as a mirror of and comment on society. Peck particularly dislikes Franzen, slapping him down in asides but never providing a full-length analysis that would explain this antipathy. Rick Moody and Sven Birkerts, subjects of the collection's most notorious demolition jobs, probably wish they'd been so lucky. You may never again read Birkerts' pompous prose with a straight face after finishing Peck's dismemberment of it, though you may also wonder if it merits such savagery. Peck argues that it does because Birkerts represents "the lowest common denominator of the American critical establishment" that is his real target, along with almost every prominent author of the past 50 years. (It seems almost deliberately perverse that he writes affectionately about Kurt Vonnegut.) Michael Cunningham is the only mainstream novelist who receives Peck's approval here; the single otherfavorable piece is devoted to Rebecca Brown, not exactly a household name. Peck's sustained, often brutal dissections of Phillip Roth, Julian Barnes, and David Foster Wallace, among others, can seem pedantic and unfair, but they amply make the point that there's way too much lazy prose and sloppy thinking in modern literature. "I am throwing away my red pen," Peck claims in his introduction, vowing to write no more hatchet jobs. That's a shame: his partisan, nastily persuasive naysaying adds a valuable perspective to our cultural debates.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565848740
  • Publisher: New Press, The
  • Publication date: 5/19/2004
  • Pages: 228
  • Product dimensions: 5.64 (w) x 7.46 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet the Author


Dale Peck is the author of three widely acclaimed novels—Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye, The Law of Enclosures, and Martin and John— and a memoir, What We Lost. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and two O. Henry awards. He lives in New York City.
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Table of Contents

Introduction : big brother is calling you names 1
1 The man who would be Sven 7
My Sky Blue Trades by Sven Birkerts
2 To P. or not to P. 42
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
3 Stop thinking : the (d)evolution of gay literature 56
Flesh and Blood by Michael Cunningham
The Facts of Life by Patrick Gale
How Long Has This Been Going On? by Ethan Mordden
Like People in History by Felice Picano
4 The lay of the land 84
American Pastoral by Philip Roth
5 Digging for gold 96
John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead
6 In the box 102
The Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid
How Stella Got Ger Groove Back by Terry McMillan
Push by Sapphire
7 The tinkerbell trick 117
Love, Etc. by Julian Barnes
8 The devil you know 133
The Devil's Larder by Jim Crace
9 American booty 150
Don't the Moon Look Lonesome by Stanley Crouch
10 The moody blues 170
The Black Veil : A Memoir with Digressions by Rick Moody
11 Kurt's conundrum 190
Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut
12 Give me shelter : in praise of Rebecca Brown 201
Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary
Afterword : Stepford novels, henpecking, Ulysses, and a note on the title 216
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