Novelist and short story writer Dale Peck doesn’t make it entirely clear what he dislikes about the modern novel, but he really, really dislikes "the worst writer of his generation," Rick Moody (essay first observed at Calamondin; discussed at Making Light). I’m not terribly familiar with Moody’s work; I believe I’ve read one (so-so) short story and part of a book in the store. Moody may well deserve the vitriol being heaped upon him. It’s very enjoyable vitriol, too, in the way that H.L. Mencken or Dorothy Parker can be delightful in their self-delighted meanness; you get a sense that Peck, who once wrote that "sometimes a bad novel is like a gift", has been storing this up for years. Peck seems largely to be using Moody as an examplar of a particular school of writing: a bad, bad school.
[T]hese writers (and their editors) see themselves as the heirs to a bankrupt tradition. A tradition that began with the diarrheic flow of words that is Ulysses; continued on through the incomprehensible ramblings of late Faulkner and the sterile inventions of Nabokov; and then burst into full, foul life in the ridiculous dithering of Barth and Hawkes and Gaddis, and the reductive cardboard constructions of Barthelme, and the word-by-word wasting of a talent as formidable as Pynchon’s; and finally broke apart like a cracked sidewalk beneath the weight of the stupid — just plain stupid — tomes of DeLillo.
Moody likes Pynchon, and maybe Peck thinks that he writes like Pynchon. He’s not nearly as good as Pynchon (whose Gravity’s Rainbow I read recently and enjoyed greatly), but Peck has an ax to grind and Moody is almost beside the point. What’s got him so steamed? What does Moody represent beyond just a bad, overpraised author?
The novelists Peck mentions might be faulted for trying to wedge too much of the human experience into their books, for trying to tell the entire story of America every time they sit down to write. But Peck’s third novel is
centered on Colin, a successful writer, and Justin, his ex-hustler lover. They say goodbye to New York City and the long roll call of friends lost to AIDS. They move to a small, racially divided Kansas town beset by its own plague of secrets and almost immediately get caught up in the tornado of crimes and misbehavior whose eye is the lynching of an albino black boy. There’s enough violence and sex here for three or four novels. There are several savage beatings. A man gets shot; a dog gets shot. There’s a fire and a hanging and someone is run off the road. At one point someone else is apparently ripped apart by pigs. Then the pigs get shot. Meanwhile, everyone gets laid. In the telling, Peck switches among more than a half-dozen narrators, black and white, intelligent and dim, young and old, straight and gay, male and female….
Surely merely describing a wide range of human experience isn’t what bothers Peck.
Or perhaps he meant that they foreground the text; they write difficult prose, prose that does not lend itself to casual reading. They write "writerly" books, to use Barthes‘ terms of "readerly" and "writerly" texts; they are books which confound the reader’s expectation and ask him or her to become participants in extracting meaning from a range of possibilities. But is that what’s setting Peck off? But in his vicious review of the often-excellent Julian Barnes’ worst book, Love, Etc., Peck writes that he has always been interested in " non-traditional narration (substitute ‘pomo shenanigans’ or ‘postmodern experimentation’ as you will)." It’s no sin to prefer books that foreground the story and don’t undercut themselves or their narrative sensibilities, although it could mean you’ll miss a gem like If on a winter’s night a traveller. The two modes need to be read differently, and I can understand how one would have an ingrained preference for one or the other. But Peck’s backhanded slap at Colson Whitehead, whose The Intuitionist is nuanced, noir-influenced science fiction, leads me to take Peck at his word; it’s not difficulty he dislikes. Whitehead writes well, plots excellently, stays unobtrusive, and pals around with the wrong crowd.
The last ill-tempered screed about the decline of the novel I read, a piece by B. R. Meyers (whom my friend Chas has suggested is a pseudonym for Stephen King or some other bestselling author), was subtitled "An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose". I was willing to play along with Meyers until his disastrous misreading of DeLillo’s White Noise; he didn’t seem to get a basic joke, that the main character (a "Hitler studies" scholar who doesn’t speak German) is not to be taken seriously. Meyers mainly seemed irritated that writers he disliked were critically acclaimed. Peck must be shooting higher than criticizing his colleagues obliquely.
In his Barnes review, Peck wrote
I do not mean to suggest that there are not any good writers in Britain besides Hollinghurst, merely that the writers who have been anointed as the propagators of the great tradition of British fiction seem to be intent upon destroying all that is good in that tradition. Virginia Woolf thought that reading Ulysses was like watching a schoolboy pick his zits in public, but if her alternatives were Will Self and Tibor Fischer, perhaps even she would jump on the Julian Barnes bandwagon.
Woolf was a genius; if Peck’s chief complaint is that there isn’t anyone out there writing novels in the style of Henry James or Virginia Woolf (and doing it as well as they did), there’s no wonder he muses that "maybe Gore Vidal was right and the novel’s time really is over and we should just accept the fact that there’s no reason to write them anymore." If today’s writers aren’t any good, and yesterday’s writers weren’t any good, who’s left? Isn’t it the critic’s job to let us know?