Saturday, April 08, 2006

In Praise of Dale Peck; or, In Praise of Reading Critiques of Books I Never Read Myself

Before you decide not to read the rest of this post, ask yourself how much you care about books and why that is. If you love them, why is that? If you don't make time to read, well, why is that? I usually answer this question with a sort of shrug myself -- something along the lines of "why bother asking?" -- but I'd like to tackle the issue for a change. And I'd like to do it through the prism of Hatchet Jobs, Dale Peck's book of criticism, which as you may have noticed, if you read every post on this blog, I recently finished. In order to do this, ultimately I will have to spell out what I think about life and art, so if you're interested you should brew some coffee or something and get ready to hunker down.

Ultimately I like books for the good and obvious reason that they enrich my thinking. Good books, anyway. They tell you things you couldn't learn any other way. (If you think you can benefit just as much from the movie version of Beloved, you're in for a rude surprise.) If you find the right ones, they really can provide ideals, inspiration and a sense of enthusiasm for living that a typical workaday job cannot and will never provide. If they hit you at the right time -- and that can be any time in your life -- they can change the way you see yourself and the world around you. They can make you a different and hopefully better person. All art has this capacity, of course, at least in theory, and I don't mean or want to privilege books as a separate and better species of art. Movies can do this too. So can painting and music and being in nature. But these things are only successful to the extent that people create them in good faith and know what they're doing. If you sling paint at a canvas without even bothering to aim, you can't really speak to the masses. If you write incomprehensible gooble and claim you're pushing the boundaries of literature -- well, I would say, you're not trying very hard at the writing game. If you just hold down a B flat on your keyboard for an hour and a half, you could make millions of dollars but you're not really moving humanity forward. In short, good art is the opposite of art done strictly for profit, or strictly as a living, or strictly as a theoretical exercise. If you approach the writing of a book solely as a career move, then you can produce some sort of product that may sell -- may even be popular -- but without caring about what the result really means in a deeper sense, you're helping to cheapen your medium. It's the same in journalism: if you don't care about the stories you're writing, your apathy will show and your capacity to make a difference will diminish.

Which leads us to Dale Peck. I admit I haven't read his novels. I think he wouldn't mind, though, that I'm writing about his book of criticism anyway, because he sees criticism the same way I do: as a vehicle for arguing about what books should be, not simply as a recommendation on whether to read the specimen that happens to be offered that day. Literary criticism, as opposed to book reviews, takes the raw material of a novel under dicussion and uses it to fashion a point that is related to the character of that novel but also transcends or goes outside the boundaries of its plot. The same thing is done everywhere: you read articles in science magazines, for instance, about the meaning of some research team's findings without actually reading the entire study being discussed. The interpretations of those findings are usually controversial and important to clarify. The same holds for the novel: just as there is such a thing as "science," there's such a thing as "literature," a multifaceted and complicated edifice of history, opinion, fact, fiction, failure and triumph. And just as some people care deeply about "science" -- not just in their own small field, but as a whole system of seeing things -- there are those, like myself, who think "literature" is more than the sum of its parts, is actually a way of approaching the creative impulses of one's life. To that extent, when bad books become popular and make people want more of the same, it hurts me because I need literature to be vital and healthy. We all lose if the creationists win; so too, I would say, do we all lose if today's bad authors win. Bad thinking, a sort of anti-creativity, takes hold over peoples' minds and tastes. This is the argument Peck makes in his book, although in entirely different language and without the extended scientific metaphor, and it's one with which I am totally in sync. Even if you don't sit down to the novels of Proust, he's saying, you should care what passes for a good book. Because if intellectually lazy schysters such as Rick Moody and Jim Crace convince us that they're the best thing the novel can do, we're all going to stop reading and eventually just lay down and die. (Incidentally, he would be the first to say something like the following: if you don't know who I'm talking about, don't feel bad. Use a comparison you're familiar with. Music should be better than American Idol schlock. Films should be better than Failure to Launch. And I bet nobody here can name a living serious painter. Peck would have something to say about how all that went wrong too, I'm sure.)

Peck is not my favorite critic. That spot is still occupied by the relatively less pungent, more intellectual James Wood -- although there's an essay waiting to be written on how he's become less interesting, and somewhat less convincing, in the last year or so. (In the meantime, you can listen to his excellent interview with Terry Gross of NPR here.) But Peck is the one by whom I'm most excited these days, because he seems to not only care about the fate of literature but to be willing to dirty his hands for its sake. Wood cannot help his excessively well-read sorrowful headshaking tone when he doesn't like something. Peck, in comparison, leaves a mess on the floor but is more exhilarating for it. He rouses you up and asks you to do something about all the bad, boring and bitter books out there. He wants you to have standards but also to be a mensch about it. He wants writers to care more about what they write, readers to care more about what they read and everyone to start caring more about the culture. His tools aren't always the most elegant -- he likes one-liner putdowns and is very good at them -- but the spirit in which he's writing is unmistakeably one of hope for the future. When he writes about Kurt Vonnegut, for instance, he doesn't take the writer to task for failing to be a literary auteur -- something Vonnegut never wanted to be anyway -- so much as he takes his legion of slobbering fans to task for putting the man on a pedestal where he doesn't belong. In short, instead of the usual snobbery about how Vonnegut is pretty much a hack, he argues for enjoying his work on the terms those works demand, rather than worshiping them as evidence of some crazy genius, which the Cult of Vonnegut often does. (I have seen this in action, and it is terribly ugly. And unlike some authors, I feel safe discussing Vonnegut, as I've read two and a half of his books. I have a firmer grounding now for saying people take him way more seriously than is needed.) Peck doesn't want everyone to be a genius or a master of the novel, as Wood can sometimes seem to hope for -- he just wants writers to give a damn and write with a sense of purpose. It is a very compelling argument.

Leaving aside the question of how he writes, since he has an enjoyably conversational writing style that doesn't warrant much discussion here, it's important to note that the tone he employs in his reviews here is almost uniformly one of anger, and although it's leavened with a good dose of humor and linguistic skill it can start to make you wonder how much he really has to say. But then, as he so memorably writes about liking another writer's work for a few seconds, the moment fades. This whole book constitutes not so much a comprehensive statement on Art as a rousing cry for literary ambition, for a reading and writing environment not so removed from the public eye and reserved for post-postmodern fakers. He doesn't resort to blaming writers for literature's demise, as Tom Wolfe (for instance) has done -- he's young enough to know that there's a lot more to do these days than read books for fun. But he does make the important point that if writers want an audience to "get" their work rather than just buy it, they're going to have to produce something worth getting, something that stimulates peoples' interest in books in general, not just that writer's own personal career. It clearly pains him that writers (and we're speaking about contemporary American writers here) don't seem to take notions of literary achievement seriously except in economic terms any more.

For a more globo-panoptic-historical-GreatBooks perspective, you should probably turn elsewhere. (Again, James Wood comes to mind. And there's always plenty to do at the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books and the Guardian Books Page.) For writing about literature that somehow manages to hit you in the gut and make it all seem like a worthwhile, important, life-altering topic, Peck's your man. Hatchet Jobs. You heard it from me. I'm sure you can find a copy at the nearest bookstore, or, heaven forbid, the library. And again: It's the critic's job to make you see what he or she sees that is of greater, more general significance in whatever is being "reviewed." No one should feel that criticism is off-limits to anyone except those who have already read the book. As Peck would say, if someone tells you that, they're trying to con you.


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