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Friday, April 2, 2021

"Hatchet Jobs" by Dale Peck

     In his provocative 2004 book, author and critic Dale Peck challenges certain "literary" novelists and the literary critics who praise their work. Peck believes these fawning critics encourage and reward bad writing and the publication of unreadable fiction. Moreover, he doesn't think the critics who love this stuff are qualified for the job. On this score, Peck writes: "Literature does have its enemies, and chief among them are pseudo-intellectuals artists and critics who think their love of books translates into some kind of knowledge."

     Hatchet Jobs was not well received in the upper echelons of the literary community. Dale Peck took a lot of flack for, in my view, pointing out the obvious. The following passages from Hatchet Jobs reflect the theme of Peck's literary manifesto:

     As one reads contemporary novelists, one can't shake the feeling that they write for one another rather than some more or less common reader. Their prose shares a showiness that speaks of solidarity and competition--the exaggerated panache with which teenage boys shoot hoops in their driveway while pretending they don't know their neighbor is watching across the street.

    I'm not sure it it's because the standards of literary fiction have become so lax or simply because the conventions are so inbred, but it seems that anyone can write a novel these days. Not a mystery or a thriller or a romance or any other type of acknowledged formula fiction, but a novel (file under: literature, see also: classics).

     Don't get me wrong. I'm not blaming this particular novelist [Peck doesn't identify the writer he's criticizing here] for the phenomenon...Rather, blame Thomas More for writing Utopia. Blame Sarte for writing The Wall, Doris Lessing for writing The Golden Notebook, Gore Vidal for writing all those historical diatribes, blame Don De Lillo for writing (and Jonathan Frazen, God help us, for reading him). Blame the people who publish these books; blame the people who buy them. Blame the writing programs and the prize committees, blame the deconstructionist literary critics or the back-patting Siamese-twinned professors of writing and reviewing fiction, blame any or all of the identity communities who read and write those ethnic-or gender-marketed booster books or blame the dead white European males who forced us to resort to literature as our daily affirmation in the first place...These novels aren't bad, they just aren't novels. They aren't art. Real fiction doesn't "discover" truth, let alone present it to readers...real fiction invents and dispenses with truth as it sees fit. That's why it's called fiction.

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