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Literary criticism ought to be more than cheerleading or vituperating

Sunday, September 22, 2002

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

In England, literary criticism is a blood sport.

Critics choose authors' ex-lovers, political opponents or former friends who are owed money to make snide remarks about their victim's personal habits, morals, current lovers and latest embarrassments while occasionally mentioning the book.

In one instance, Martin Amis was denounced for his dental work.

It's great entertainment and, in the end, probably not taken very seriously.

Britain is a small place where most writers know one another and there are few secrets. The American writers' colony is more scattered and diverse. There's also that age-old attitude that if it doesn't happen in New York, it doesn't matter, regardless of the lively literary scenes elsewhere.

The effect is to isolate, if not alienate, writers in one part of the country from the other.

British journalism generally is more personal than its American counterpart, which has tied itself permanently to the concept of objectivity.

Newspapers in Britain slosh their political views over into the news coverage. In the States, the facts are supposed to come first, and the slightest hint of opinion is scoured out.

That principle has been influencing arts criticism for years as well, probably because at one time in the distant past, many reviewers started out as reporters on the cops beat. (I confess I did.)

The result has been years of respectful, dull writing, emphasizing the "facts" while shyly slipping in a meek opinion, usually in the final paragraph. In many cases, newspaper book reviews are barely more than plot summaries.

When pressed to make a judgment, the average American book reviewer will reject books she or he doesn't like and plead for "something I can say good things about."

It's an attitude that guarantees blandness and boredom. At one time, a certain book review publication assigned friends of authors or writers whose own work was praised by the author under review to write the "criticism."

This practice is the direct opposite of the provocative English style, and the result is the opposite as well -- a love feast without critical judgments or even a few funny insults.

There's been a new and even more disturbing trend lately -- turning a review into a personal essay about a current neurosis, past trauma or, as one powerful critic manages frequently, a plug for the reviewer's own books.

After a steady diet of this hash of neurotics, slavish admirers, self-promoters and reliable journeymen, a piece of opinionated criticism seems shocking and even more amazing, original.

This summer, novelist Dale Peck assaulted Rick Moody in the New Republic with a 6,000-word rant which opened with the sentence, "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation."

Peck previously attacked Stanley Crouch and Jim Crace, but not with the gusto and savagery he saved for Moody and his memoir, "The Black Veil."

His blast also showered many members of the 20th-century white male canon -- Joyce, Faulkner, Nabokov, Don DeLillo -- with shrapnel as well, a real buckshot approach to literary criticism.

While it's true that Moody's latest -- a rumination on his family history and his struggle with drink and drugs -- was self-indulgent and ultimately came to little, it hardly deserved Peck's apoplectic treatment. There were worse books out there this year.

As literary criticism, Peck's July 1 essay is worthless. There isn't a well-reasoned or tempered comment about literature in it; in fact, while we know who Peck doesn't like, we're hard-pressed to glean who his exemplars are, if any.

Worthy criticism begins with a set of standards, a positive position, then judges the work in question against those standards.

What are Dale Peck's standards? Who knows? Why does he reject the work of Rick Moody? Because he just doesn't like the guy -- and that's not good enough.

Peck's cry of frustration about contemporary literature is just a continuation of a mediocre bit of grumbling in the Atlantic Monthly last year by a B.R. Myers.

Called "A Reader's Manifesto," the overwritten essay was at its heart a conventional yearning for the good old days of the 19th century and a blanket rejection of contemporary authors.

Its fundamentalist finger-wagging was better suited to a workshop for fanatical reactionaries than a starting point for serious discussion.

Peck has at least sparked a feeble glow of literary debate in a variety of places from the Internet to the Toronto Globe and Mail.

There is a need for more criticism that moves beyond the specific work in order to raise issues and ask questions about the bigger picture. Now that we've had time to get over Peck's audacity, we should get down to things that matter and begin serious discussions.

Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.

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