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Hatchet Jobs: Writings on Contemporary Fictionby Dale Peck
"In his meticulous attention to diction, his savage wit, his exact and rollicking prose, his fierce devotion to stylistic and intellectual precision, and — of course — his disdain for pseudo-intellectual flatulence, Peck is Mencken's heir (although he's got to curb his lazy use of expletives). He writes that this collection marks the end of his hatchet jobs. For the sake of the republic of letters, he'd better change his mind." Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic Monthly (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
Synopses & Reviews
According to Dale Peck, contemporary fiction is at an impasse. Its place as entertainer and educator has been usurped by television and the movies while publishing has become a feeder industry to Hollywood. Faced with such diminished status, novelists have reacted in two admirable, if misguided, ways: writing for targeted socio-cultural groups, they produce so-called identity fiction, which employs a neo-Victorian realism and resembles anthropology more than art; or, they've pursued an ironic and self-reflexive postmodernism that can only comment on the real world with a mocking, impotent jest. Both solutions are reactionary and self-defeating, leading to books for the few rather than the many that isolate their readers instead of bringing them together. Hatchet Jobs methodically eviscerates such writing. Reviewing the work of Jim Crace, Rick Moody, and Colson Whitehead, Dale Peck scrutinizes the publishing climate that fosters what he deems mediocre work and the critical establishment that rewards it. Essays on gay and black women's fiction acknowledge the benefits and limitations of identity fiction, while critiques of Julian Barnes and David Foster Wallace show how twentieth-century literary movements continue to shape fiction for both good and ill. Rife with textual analysis, historical context, and insights about the power of fiction, Hatchet Jobs hacks away literature's deadwood to discover the vital heart of the contemporary novel.
"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 à 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)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"This isn't criticism. It isn't even performance art. It's thuggee. However entertaining in small doses...as a steady diet it's worse for readers, writers and reviewers than self-abuse." John Leonard, The New York Times Book Review
"[A] passionate, committed commentator who definitely has an axe to grind....[Peck vows] to write no more hatchet jobs. That's a shame: his partisan, nastily persuasive naysaying adds a valuable perspective to our cultural debates." Kirkus Reviews
"Smart, self-dramatizing, and pugilistic...[Peck's] essays possess true moxie....
"For those who like their literary criticism strong, emotional, and salty, this is essential to finish an era. Recommended." Library Journal
"Shatteringly honest, disturbing, and provocative." David Weingard, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
The acclaimed novelist takes a vigorous swipe at contemporary fiction and its progenitors.
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.
About 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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