This Week’s Column:


... a MobyLives guest column

by Steve Almond

30 October 2003 — He's back.

Just when you thought Dale Peck and his infantile diatribes had run their course, James Atlas has seen fit to celebrate the Rush Limbaugh of American Letters in a lengthy profile for the New York Times Magazine.

Profile may be the wrong word, though. Hagiography is probably closer to the mark. The piece manages to be both woefully naœve and deeply cynical at the same time.

Job one for Atlas is to sell us on the brash brilliance of his subject. He does so by informing us that Peck considers Faulkner's late novels "incomprehensible ramblings." DeLillo's books are "just plain stupid." And Charles Dickens is "the worst writer to plague the English language."

Having thus established Peck's keen and supple intellect, he moves on to such vital terrain as Peck's hairstyle and home décor.

But let's not waste any more words on Peck. He's already gotten enough attention for throwing his poop around the room.

The real sad cases here are Atlas and his editors at the Times Magazine, along with the editors at the New Republic, who have clearly decided to abide by the Fox News marketing mantra: hate sells.

I should note that I read and enjoyed Atlas's biography of Saul Bellow, and also have enjoyed his occasional pieces in the New Yorker. I found it shocking, actually, that a writer of his caliber would choose to sanctify such a pathetically transparent creep.

In the interests of getting this over with quickly, a few snippets:

1. Why should we care what Dale Peck thinks? The short answer is, He's interesting. . . .

I'm not sure Atlas is trying to sound stupid here, though he does. What makes Peck "interesting" is the way in which he reflects our cultural investment in hostility. He appeals primarily to the sadistic envy within his readers, not their intellectual curiosity. If that's what passes for interesting in the world of literary criticism, we have reached a very sad place.

2. Not only has he managed to get himself talked about (''Dale Peck is the Michael Ovitz of the literary world,'' says the literary agent Bonnie Nadell); he has managed to stir up a debate over the practice of book reviewing. . . .

This passage is stupefying. To begin with, there is the implication that getting oneself talked about constitutes a literary achievement. It does not.

Next, we get that lovely sound bite from, of all people, an agent, who seems to regard a similarity to Michael Ovitz as something at least partially flattering. (Imagine that.) The message is clear: if you're sufficiently ruthless you, too, can become famous. How comforting.

Last of all we have the assertion that Peck has stirred up debate. That's a load of crap. When people read Peck's work, they aren't thinking about the books in question so much as grooving on—or masochistically indulging in—his wrath.

As to Peck's views on the critical mission as a whole, the piece offers almost no insight. We get no sense of what Peck actually wants from literature. That, apparently, would be a distraction from the truly fascinating topic here: his hatred.

3. "The tone is something I didn't think about per se," [Peck] said. "I basically just got angry. And that's something my editors enjoy."

Wow. I'm astounded not so much at Peck's pathology but at the notion—supported elsewhere in the piece—that the New Republic actually seeks out his pathology.

Sales at TNR must be pretty dismal. I can't figure out otherwise why the editors would feel the need to recast their book section as the literary equivalent of MTV's Punk'd.

Nobody's objecting to critics spanking books they don't like. That's part of the job. But when the tone of these assaults overshadows—or blots out—aesthetic objections, something is terribly wrong. The best critics write reviews because love literature, not because they hate authors.

4. Peck dug up a quote in which Moody indulges in a preening celebration of his own style: ''And I suddenly realized that it was O.K. for me to write these long, torrid sentences and that people would still read the work and many people would be really excited by it.'' Maybe they would be, but does Moody have to come right out and say so?

Moody's quote is hardly "a preening celebration." He's more or less stating facts: he made this stylistic decision; people dug it. Period. Like it or not—and we know how angry this makes Peck—the sales numbers support his point.

The manner in which Atlas serves as Peck's attack dog on this point is especially baffling, given that Peck himself later declares (apparently with a straight face): "Maybe I am a jerk, but the books I've published are among the best books published in the last 10 years."

This may be so. I'm in no position to judge, as I haven't read his books. It may be that Peck is really that damn good. It's clear he regards himself as that damn good. And it must drive him crazy to see his genius unheralded, while a hack like Moody basks in the spotlight. It's the kind of thing that could drive an obscure novelist to, oh, I don't know, seek revenge as a critic maybe.

5. [Heidi] Julavits's perhaps self–interested manifesto on behalf of kinder, gentler reviews (she was about to publish a novel of her own) contains the valuable insight that hostile reviews represent "a critical attempt to compete, on an entertainment level." In other words, critics like Peck can be more fun to read than the books they review. . . .

Oy vey. Are you really saying this, Atlas? That Julavits wrote her piece to make sure her novel got an easy ride? What would be the evidence for this claim? Did you feed her truth serum? Because otherwise you're trafficking in malicious rumor, and back when I was working as a reporter that was called libel.

I am absolutely astounded that the Times Magazine would allow a writer to regurgitate such a half–witted piece of literary gossip. (I guess it passed the new standard for publication in that esteemed publication: it's just so darn interesting.)

As to the second half of the passage, Atlas has totally misrepresented Julavits on behalf of his client, er, I mean, subject. Her point is that reviewers like Peck are less interested in exploring literature than in building their own reps. It's one of the oldest and most obvious tricks in the book. We need look no further than the profile itself to see that folks are still falling for it.

6. "I don't like being the center of attention," [Peck] said. "I don't mind, you know, being listened to, but I don't like being the center of this whole debate."

Let's put aside the fact that Peck posed for the Times piece chopping into a stack of books with a hatchet. When the bullshit is piled up this high, there's no real need to comment—which may be why Atlas lets this whopper stand on its own.

The obvious irony here, one that Atlas never sees fit to note, is that Peck has made himself the center of attention based solely on his venomous tone. Indeed, in the course of a piece that runs more than 4000 words, Atlas offers nothing, not one word, about Peck's positive aesthetic vision, let alone his own creative efforts. Again: nothing about what Peck desires from literature, not even a single scrap of his own epic prose.

Instead, Atlas serves up a gushing celebrity profile, chock full of self–victimization and self–aggrandizement, and largely unexamined biographical details. (We learn that Peck feels his father "terrorized" people. What a coincidence!)

Look: the last time I checked, authors—and critics—were supposed to make their names based on the ideas and emotions raised in their work.

But alright, let's just please forget about Atlas. He's a patsy.

The folks who deserve blame are the editors in question. They're the ones, ultimately, who are giving Peck the microphone. They're the ones who are reducing the level of literary discourse in this country to shock jock theatrics. They should be ashamed of themselves.

The saddest aspect of all this is that so much time is being wasted on a sideshow like Peck.

If you want to be outraged, as a person, as a writer, there are plenty of worthy targets. We have a sitting president who stole the last election, who launched a war under false pretenses, who has run up a massive deficit by sopping the rich. We have a world in which the quotient of human suffering continues to grow, while the value placed on that suffering plummets. The children of the developing world are dying, starving, blowing themselves up. Americans are turning away from their own compassion in record numbers, handing the reins over to angry white men.

This is the precise historical moment at which writers should take themselves more seriously. We need to quit wallowing in competitive envy and fame worship and sit our asses down to the real task.

History sniffs out the phonies. It always does.

Write (and read) because you love people and want to rescue them, not because you hate yourself and want to terrorize others with that hate.

Steve Almond's short story collection, "My Life in Heavy Metal," is out in paperback. Algonquin will publish his next book, "Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America" this spring. He runs the website He urges people to read Dale Peck's novels and to stop blabbling about his criticism/thuggery.

©2003 Steve Almond

Previous column; THE CULT OF THE ETHNIC AUTHOR ... In a guest column, Laila Lalami says that at a Q & A after a Monica Ali reading, she got to see in a nutshell all the frightening assumptions made about ethnic writers.


Write to Moby
Letters policy: All letters must be signed. Also, please say where you’re writing from — either an affiliation or hometown.
All material not otherwise attributed ©2001, 2002, 2003 Dennis Loy Johnson.