Destructive Criticism

Hatchet Jobs: Writings on Contemporary Fiction, Dale Peck, The New Press.


Dale Peck, gadfly extraordinaire, is best known for his zingers, especially the one which led off a review of a Rick Moody book: “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.” With “Hatchet Jobs”—a new collection of a dozen previously published reviews—Peck cements his reputation as a writer who is not scared to tell other writers how lousy their work is. Which, if you think about it, raises the bar for his work almost impossibly high. Next time one of Peck’s novels comes out (he’s written two so far), it better be damn Dostoevsky in order to measure up to his talk. 

The pleasant surprise of “Hatchet Jobs” is that, for the most part, Peck's essays are more complex than the title would have you believe. As to be expected, there are one or two wholly cruel and one-dimensional essays. Peck is unaccountably mean to fellow critic Sven Birkets (“The Man Who Would be Sven”), not just about his work but about Birkets’ life and career. Referring to one of Birkets’ collections of criticism, Peck writes, “it's easy to see him scrambling for assignments, taking whatever comes his way.” Peck comes off like a little boy with a magnifying glass frying an ant. 

But in other pieces, particularly “Stop Thinking: The (De)evolution of Gay Literature” and “In the Box,” there is a lot of thought to be found. Peck’s writing style is unobscured by frippery, and he is unsparingly rigorous, even when it comes to analyzing gay literature, a genre to which he might be partial. He complains about gay-genre novels like those of Felice Piccano and Ethan Mordden, which, he says “manage to communicate little more than their own posturing.” Meanwhile, he commends Michael Cunningham and Patrick Gale for finding ways to “illustrate the tension between society and self, whether that self is straight or gay.” 

If you remember learning about the difference between constructive and destructive criticism in grade school, you’ll find good examples of each among these essays. It’s when Peck delivers constructive criticism that "Hatchet Jobs” transcends its name and becomes worth reading.