Ever since 405 BC, when Aristophanes, in a comedy entitled Frogs, hit upon the sublime idea of staging a literary contest in the Underworld between two dead writers who loathe each other’s work (Euripides and Aeschylus), the best literary criticism has often been a form of sadistic entertainment—one that uses comedy’s tools (humiliation, ridicule, exaggeration) to comment not on society but on art. There is, of course, an equally long tradition of critics who don’t strive to score belly laughs as they illuminate great texts; that tradition, in fact, begins with Aristophanes’ near contemporary Aristotle, to whose Poetics, written sometime in the middle of the fourth century BC, we owe the first full-scale and intellectually sophisticated attempt to analyze the nature of aesthetic pleasure and to systematize the mechanisms by which literary texts produce that pleasure. (Aristotle’s own text is, it must be said, not the most fun to read: it would be hard to find a less humorous explanation of humor than “Comedy is (as we have said) an imitation of inferior people—not, however, with respect to every kind of defect: the laughable is a species of what is disgraceful. The laughable is an error or disgrace that does not involve pain or destruction,” etc., etc.*)
If a work like Frogs is more fun for audiences, it’s probably because the play, with its ruthless send-ups of the well-known weaknesses of each of the two contestants, satisfies a primitive pleasure that lies at the heart of all comedy: the Schadenfreude-laden enjoyment of the spectacle of someone else’s humiliation and, ultimately, defeat. After a long verbal duel in which each playwright enumerates his opponent’s flaws with devastating accuracy, Aristophanes provides a brilliant climax which hilariously con-flates a literal and a figurative “weighing” of one poet’s work against the other’s: each approaches a scale and utters a line from his work, and the onlookers peer to see whose words are weightier. Aeschylus—whose diction is famously more ponderous (“bundles of blast and boast,” his antagonist spits) than that of Euripides (who prefers airy vers libre)—naturally wins, and so Euripides must remain in the Underworld, while Aeschylus is restored to the world of the living.
It is worth noting that the comic contest between the two writers is repeatedly referred to in Aristophanes’ text as a krisis, a word that can mean anything from “dispute” to “decision” to “judgment”; the verb it’s related to is krino, “to judge.” Those shades of meaning help illuminate the nature of another derivative from krino, the English word “critic.” As the culminating scene from Frogs reminds us, disputes about the values of an artist’s work are decided by a kind of weighing, which leads to a judgment. The person who performs this weighing, this judging, is the critic.
Critics, of course, are also judged: you somehow suspect that most people would much rather see a performance of Frogs than plow their way through the Poetics. It’s not that Aristotle doesn’t make exacting judgments; it’s just that they’re too polite to be much fun. (“An example of inconsistency is the Iphigeneia in Aulis …in characterization, just as much as in the structure of events, one ought always to look for what is necessary or probable.”) Great popular criticism, on the other hand, acknowledges and exploits the cruelty inherent in any critique, which is why we’re still reading Frogs, and still giggling at Aeschylus’ attacks on Euripides. “You, you jabber-compiler, you dead-beat poet,/you rag-stitcher-together, you say this to me?/…I won’t stop, until I’ve demonstrated in detail/what kind of one-legged poet this is who talks so big.”
Talking big—to say nothing of Aristophanic hyperbole, comic brio, and the guilty pleasure to be had in witnessing the humiliation of others—is on offer in a new work of literary criticism by a contemporary writer, the novelist Dale Peck. The book’s title, Hatchet Jobs, tells you a lot about its author’s style. In the summer of 2002, Peck created what he proudly refers to, in the introduction to the twelve essays in his new book, as a “ruckus in the publishing world.” The cause of the ruckus was an annihilating review he’d written of a memoir by the novelist Rick Moody—to whom Peck, in an opening salvo more or less typical of his critical modus operandi, referred as “the worst writer of his generation.” Peck himself is happy to chronicle the notoriety his review garnered soon after its publication:
Let me be honest: my review was scathing…. Cocktail party gossip soon yielded pieces in New York magazine and the Observer, online at Salon and Plastic.com and at least a dozen blogs. Most of the commentary denounced me, not so much for what I’d written as for the vehemence with which I’d phrased it…. The backlash reached its nadir in March 2003, in a massive essay Heidi Julavits wrote for the debut issue of The Believer. In the piece…Julavits called for a literary culture that …resists the urge to indulge in “snarky” book reviewing.
He does not exaggerate: I happened to be staying with friends in Italy early that summer, and I can attest that even there the phone lines and Internet connections were humming with news about l’affaire Moody. Peck claims, in the introduction to Hatchet Jobs, that his initial pleasure in his article’s impact “faded as I realized that people were less interested in what I (or the writers I’d reviewed) had to say than in the possibility of a brawl,” but you can’t help thinking he’s being a tad disingenuous. Anyone who begins a review by stating that someone is the worst writer of his generation is someone who’s interested in the possibility of a brawl.
The notorious Moody review (“The Moody Blues”) has now been collected with eleven other “writings on contemporary fiction” which Peck has written for The New Republic, The London Review of Books, and The Village Voice. The surprise of the book is that its outré title (to say nothing of its cover, a photograph of the brawny, bald Peck wielding an axe) does it a serious injustice. Whatever its rhetorical excesses (and there are many) and its cramped aesthetic vision, it is an extremely intelligent book, and clearly the work of a potentially noteworthy critic—although, to be sure, one working in the Aristophanic, rather than the Aristotelian, mode.
Hatchet Jobs is not, at first glance, the book that you’d have predicted Peck would end up writing, back when his career first began. In 1993 he published a much-acclaimed debut novel called Martin and John, which was really a collection of short stories connected by the conceit, which you learn toward the end (and sometimes suspect that Peck came up with at the end), that one of the characters has written them all. It was a clever book—the work of a young man, to be sure, but surprisingly sophisticated both emotionally and formally. (Although the stories are all about different people in different places and of different classes, the main characters are always named Martin and John, and secondary characters are always Bea and Henry.) Peck’s formal gamesmanship was evident again in his second novel, The Law of Enclosures, whose title derives, in part, from the way in which the first and second halves of his fiction (about a drearily unhappily married couple named Bea and Henry) enclose a starkly written autobiographical section in which Peck suggests the origins of certain themes and subjects that recur in his fiction: domestic alienation and violence, psychological cruelty, alcoholism, spousal abuse, child abuse, homosexuality, premature death.
As it turned out, The Law of Enclosures was a kind of road map for Peck’s subsequent career. His next book was another novel, Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye (1998), a sprawling affair about race and sexuality set in a rather suggestively named town (“Galatea”) in Kansas, the state where Peck grew up. It was a book whose cast of characters—an artist, an academic, a black hustler named Divine, an albino black man, a black preacher, and a white Southern belle—suggested tremendous allegorical ambitions. But after that it was as if the startling central section of The Law of Enclosures had exerted a kind of tug on its author, and Peck returned to nonfiction family memoir with What We Lost (2003), which focused on his father’s grim childhood, where once again alcoholism, child abuse, psychological abuse, and poverty were the subjects at hand. Dale Peck Sr. is, indeed, the figure who connects all of his son’s writing: a powerful, frightening, tormented, and punishing father is never very far away in both his fiction and his nonfiction—and, I suspect, his criticism as well.
I am not a great admirer of Peck’s fiction, which I find (perhaps because of the artificial, almost willed quality of its formal and rhetorical schemes) always to be straining rather too hard for effect. This was certainly the case with Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye, which collapsed under the weight of its overladen allegorical structures. But even the much-acclaimed first novel seemed to me to seesaw between a strained “lyricism” (“the world accumulated history as each second passed, but I sloughed it off as though my body were coated in wax”) and cliché: “I look at him, confused, staring full on into the bottomless tranquility of his eyes.” Equally conventional, it seemed, was the affected affectlessness of the prose Peck used to describe the traumas his characters suffered—a stylistic tic you found in lots of young gay male writing during the late 1980s and early 1990s. (“I lost my virginity to my stepfather on my mother’s double bed during the afternoon’s heat while she was at work.”) For someone who, in his critical writings, seems to value “passion” highly, Peck doesn’t put a lot of it in his fiction.
These bad habits were more in evidence in the second novel. Critics have raved about the beauty of Peck’s prose, but in his fiction, at least, the diction has only gotten more portentous with time (“this drifting was his only dream, his earliest desire; it was his desideratum”), the writing more overwrought (“the shriek of the alarm had skinned him like an onion, layer by layer”), and the symbolism ever more heavy-handed. In The Law of Enclosures, the unhappy couple are having a new house built, and each one has a different idea of what it should look like, so that in the end it is—like the marriage itself! (as Peck, who is much given in his criticism to caustic italics, might put it)—“an eccentric amalgamation; inside, it looked like two jigsaw puzzles forced together.” Worse, in this novel Peck indulged even more a penchant for what I think of as bossiness: he never trusted his story (let alone dialogue) to illuminate his characters, but instead not only kept telling you what his characters were thinking at every moment, which is wearying, but had them think things that no one actually thinks, except of course characters in novels who need to think them so that we realize that they’re doomed or vulnerable, etc:
Aristotle, Poetics, translated with an introduction and notes by Malcolm Heath (Penguin, 1996), p. 9.↩
Aristotle, Poetics, translated with an introduction and notes by Malcolm Heath (Penguin, 1996), p. 9.↩