Sunday, January 08, 2006

Knives Out

"Castrate the bastard."

This was Ira's immediate response to hearing Dale Peck's call for "the excision from the canon, or at least the demotion in status, of most of Joyce, half of Faulkner and Nabokov, nearly all of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo."

Our friends, family, and anyone (say the exterminator) at all familiar with the Rasmussen-Goloubeva home library will immediately recognize this quote as an affront to our aesthetic sensibilities, critical intelligence, and way of life. I mean Joyce, Faulkner, Nabokov, Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo... This is what we do, how we spend our days (and much of our nights), and why we lead a relatively (by Western standards) ascetic existence.

Ira didn't know it at the time, but the quote I read for her was from a book titled Hatchet Jobs: Writings on Contemporary Fiction, which made her recommendation all the more appropriate, I think.

Now, castration might sound excessive, but only if one is unfamiliar with Peck's shallow attempts at self-promotion via trash-talking book reviews that are to 'literary criticism' what Bill O'Reilly is to political commentary. I suspect Peck imagines himself to be a sort of latter day Oscar Wilde, or perhaps Dorthy Parker, but from what I've read his put-downs are more bitchy than witty. That is, they read like attention-seeking expressions of resentment rather than devastatingly clever critiques.

Here's Daniel Mendelsohn's more thorough take from the New York Review of Books on Peck's book. The review didn't put me off Peck entirely, but I'll have to hear what Rone - who read a range of contemporary, non-academic literary critics and reviewers for his PhD exam list - thinks before I bother to track Peck's writing down at the library or on the Net.


The Sanity Inspector said...

Reminds me of this quote:

Literature teachers whether in high school, college, or at the graduate level look at [visiting authors] shrewdly, apparently judging whether you should be accepted into a club in which it is unlikely that they themselves will ever be members, but because of their affection for their own literary favorites they view themselves, perhaps properly, as guardians of some thoroughly imaginary gate, forgetting that time herself will tell, and not all that accurately in the short term. It is startling indeed to look at old anthologies or see prize lists in almanacs and see the "disappeared" ones, not from political terror but by the way time stretched them thin to the point of invisibility.
-- Jim Harrison, _Off to the Side_, 2002

EDR said...

Thanks for the quote. I take Harrison's point. Time will tell in the long-term, yes, though historical reputations and book sales rise and fall because of the actions of individuals at different places and times. Sadly, a great number of literary texts, particularly classic literature, sell the bulk of their copies to students taking classes. I'd love to live in a world where paperback copies of, say, Melville and Kafka took the place of Grisham and that De Vinci Code guy, but that won't happen. To be honest I am not worried about the reputations of Joyce, Faulkner, Nabokov, Pynchon, DeLillo, etc. Aside from academic admirers, most of these writers have a solid 'cult' following and, hell, Oprah even recommended Faulkner. That said, I wish more people read in general and read their book in particular. Therefore, I do resent this guy Peck and others (Jonathan Franzen) who discourage people from reading works because of their 'difficulty'. I get tired of faux-populism that appeals to people's desire not to know. But that's another topic...

As a teacher of contemporary and postmodern lit, I do feel guilty at times for not teaching more 'unknown' writers and doing my small part to help them build an audience. The fact of the matter is that 'literary' writing, especially poetry and short stories, but also novels, especially those tagged as 'experimental,' just don't sell in the numbers that the corporate publishers - which have been bought up by media conglomerates who are in the business for short-term profitability - would like. Consequently, a lot of books published in hardback are remaindered and shipped back to be recycled destroyed before reviewers - both in and out of the academy - have a chance to review them. I sometimes wonder the extent to which my role as an academic critic obliges me to promote (in all senses of the word) literature to the world at large. Within the profession, of course, we're still encouraged to limit our interventions to fellow scholars and our students. Thank goodness for nonprofits like the Dalkey Archive Press and the Center for Book Culture for bringing a lot of modern and postmodern works back in print.