“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”
-George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 1946
A good chunk of time has passed now – more than ten years, to be precise – since the publication of one of the most excoriating reviews I have ever read: Dale Peck’s “The Moody Blues,” which ran in the Books and Arts section of the New Republic in July, 2002. I have just recently revisited it. To reread vintage venom might seem masochistic, but I was curious whether hindsight has proved him right. Peck’s essay was the equivalent of standing on the steps of the literary temple and pointing up at the false gods. The cognoscenti in 2002 had wanted to pitch him over the side of his own pretentious cliff. His Hatchet Jobs came later, in 2004. Peck took an ax to such luminaries such as Julian Barnes, Sven Birkerts, Don DeLillo, Jamaica Kincaid, Philip Roth, Alice Walker, and David Foster Wallace; but, it is here in “Moody Blues” that he fired the first shot, as if he had gone turkey hunting with his literary shotgun. He would use an extra-full choke on his gobbler-getter and take level aim at Rick Moody’s head.
The traditional book review identifies the intended audience for the book, provides a summary with no spoilers, and then cites what worked, what didn’t, and why. The decision then lies with the reader as to whether or not the book makes the To-Read List. The inference is that the critic’s opinion is informed, articulate, and polite. There is no noise when the teacup is set down. There is no clanging of the spoon. There is also that assumption that the reader trusts the critic’s judgment and doesn’t read the review column to do the exact opposite, as some people will do who read movie critics just to argue with them or see the movie they hated just because. Peck, though educated, informed and articulate, was not polite. His essay was not traditional. What he wrote was perceived as rude, akin to an impolite sound and smell at a book-signing event, with the unfortunate author downwind.
A recap of Peck drawing first blood: Moody had just published The Black Veil. The first sentence sets the tenor and terror: “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.” In short order, Peck’s lament was both a jeremiad and indictment, not only of Rick Moody but of the entire American literary scene. Peck reviewed Veil, and proceeded to pronounce judgment on Moody’s entire oeuvre, saying in so many words that Moody was a hopeless but consistent hack. Moody’s high crime? Peck asserts that Moody’s style is nothing more than a slop bucket of messy metaphors. He is “pretentious, muddled, derivative, bathetic.” I used “is” because Peck’s grand judgment implies that it is very unlikely that Hiram Frederick Moody III will ever write anything worthwhile. Peck ushers a paragraph and other examples into evidence, but basically says that the writing is so bad that it is self-evident. Peck wrote: “if you honestly do not believe that this is bad writing, then you are a part of the problem.” Good going, Dale. You’ve just insulted the reader. Peck was symbolically drawn and quartered for crossing the line of objectivity over to opinionated opinion, launching a full frontal assault and kneeing Moody in the groin. Peck had become peckish.
Sigh. Rereading the article I tried to find something in the crime scene that I had not seen ten-plus years ago. I did. Peck initially diagnoses the problem as going back to the “diarrheic flow of words that is Ulysses.” I had seen that comment in 2002, but my perception of its significance since then has deepened. What I think Peck was trying to say then is that the novel had become so self-referential, so obscure an artifact that nobody could understand it, and that few were brave enough to say that the emperor had no clothes. Have the 11 years since then seen any change? No.
Literature is the con job par excellence. What has happened? What indictment did Peck hand down back then? He sums up the situation: writers are not telling stories any more, but doing the equivalent of shooting spitballs at each other in a public forum. They write to each other and keep the joke locked up in the writing desk. I’ve also noticed that the same writers blurb each other. The writers in Peck’s rogue’s gallery are Barth, Barthelme, and Pynchon. After them, came the flood, the literary scene of the glitterati hanging out on the sidewalk with the literati sipping chic martinis late at night. Everything good about a book has gone to hell, Peck seems to say, but when hasn’t it? Publishing has always been about what sells. Commercialism and Culture are like military leaders and politicians: it doesn’t work well because the objectives are at odds with each other. Today’s commercial market is not particularly special. There has been crap and there will always be crap. Readers used to rely on book reviews and critics until the critics became part of the problem. Most readers now rely on word of mouth, on personal recommendations. As for ‘culture,’ there have always been tastemakers and “nattering nabobs of negativism” about the state of literature.
But the question that arises in my mind regarding Peck’s revulsion with modernism, post-modernism – essentially everything that came after Joyce is this — As a writer evolves does language become spare and terse or more complicated and convoluted? Does language beget more language? Should it? The spare-and-terse argument has Hemingway distilling words down to “one true sentence.” The problem there is that all that linguistic distillation could lead to suicide. Again, Hemingway is the example. The spare-and-terse crowd also has the paradoxical figure of Faulkner and his edict: “kill your darlings.” One wonders then what Faulkner had edited out of his writing.
The prevailing ‘taste’ is a combination of what Strunk & White laid out in their slim volume on good writing, what Orwell described as ethical journalism, and Hemingway’s democratic display of daily language for art. The model for the elegant sentence has changed from the maximalistic to to the minimalistic, which is fine, but it is not what writers call “voice.” Pick up any “how to write” book and you’ll understand that Strunk & White’s advice is a reaction to the bad writing of their day. This all presumes that the writer is into telling a story and not seeing the blank page as a playground for ego, for displays of linguistic virtuosity that serve no good. Without restraint and good judgment or a wise editor nearby the writer becomes like the ingénue who hits the high notes simply to prove that she can do it and everybody in the room rolls their eyes knowing overkill when they hear it. Too much self-conscious prose and the novel will fall apart: excellent writing but a poor story. And what about the people in the story? “Damn fine writing there, but the characters, fictional though they are, are a miserable collection of human beings. I’d kill them to put myself out of my own misery.” Writing clear demotic seems so un-literary. The writer doesn’t want to be known for writing the “barbaric yawp.” Instead, modern literature has become the cult of the sentence.
Peck puts the blame on James Joyce. The famous Dubliner’s torrent of words can feel like a con job, if not onanistic, self-indulgent; but of course, you can say all literature is some form of deceit and deception, or, like opera: listen to the music, feel the passion, even if you don’t understand the words. Readers are tricked, bamboozled, and nothing more than bobbleheads with money in their pockets. The truth is that some writers want to take chances and see whether they have what it takes to step out of the comfort zone. The alternative is cranking out the same formula. The storyteller has always been the hunger artist, but the danger as Peck pointed out is that literature is now elitist, the text unreadable, incoherent, and literally unpronounceable. I would add to this: the reader disappears, becomes as indeterminate as the text. The author is no longer telling a story as much as having a private conversation with himself. As for the reader, he/she is merely the voyeur. Indicted as coconspirators are the tastemakers and the publishing industry.
So then, is it all a cynical and hopeless mess for writers these days? It is confusing because on the one hand the writer is told to cast the line with the perfect arc with the right amount of bait to catch the fast and fleeting reader. I call it the burden of the killer sentence, not “the anxiety of influence.” The metaphor of fishing is more like boxing: the knockout punch must come in the first round. In fact, Peck does mention boxing. “Moody starts his books like a boxer talking trash before the bout.” No fun in clobbering someone in the first sentence. What is left of the reader two hundred pages later? The writer is told that the hook has to be perfect but not overwrought. How modernist of me to be ambiguous and self-conscious and self-referential with my fishing and boxing metaphor now. The hook. Wink. Wink. The con is that is what writers are told to do, but it isn’t what they find when they crack open the books on the shelf. The advice doesn’t sell. Pretension does.
The how-to books that now outnumber living editors eschew obfuscation and density, advising writers to paragraph frequently, keep dialog snappy and beats revelatory because the pages must turn and readers are ever so unforgiving of one false step. That is so sad, so bad; but has the act of reading become a foot race where the reader drops dead twenty-six miles later, the word, “Nike” on his lips? If reading is that fast, turning pages because it is a “breathless read,” then the novel risks imminent forgetability in that it is nothing more than a color splotch in the MRI scan of the Wernicke’s area in the reader’s brain, next to the compartment that reminds us that there is a 160-character limit for a text or 140 for a tweet. The “fast read” is the trained twitch of “must buy another book,” and “Nike” is true product placement and suggestion.
Also in 2002, B.R. Myers classified trends in literature and reception in A Reader’s Manifesto. Different tack, but same argument: prose style, he said, has its own buzzwords: “evocative “muscular,” “edgy,” “spare,” and my favorite, the quasi-redundant “literary.” “How do you like literature?” the bookseller will ask you as the consumer he wants to keep away from Amazon’s devil’s tail logo. Ah, the connoisseur experience. “Do you prefer literary literature, or your prose a tad nihilistic? Allow me to show you some vintage Palahniuk.” So the store clerk (where stores still exist) has become Virgil in the dark woods, a concierge cum therapist, and foodie, minus the diplomas on the wall.
Myers is onto something when he points out that not so subtle distinction between the stylistic descriptors “evocative” (Annie Proulx is his example) and “muscular”(see Cormac McCarthy). It reminds me of Nixon’s gibe to discredit Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1950: “she was pink right down to her underwear.” Nixon’s dig was to suggest that Douglas, while not a Communist, was sympathetic and soft on Communism. Proulx, for all I know, prefers boxer briefs. The point is that “evocative” is code for “woman writer” and “muscular” or “male writer”; they flex, lift, and open the pickle jar (Freudian alert). I guess bookstores should be color-coded: pink, blue, romper room, adolescent and adult sections, with further sub-categories for gay readers, those of color, and – but wait, the stores are already organized that way. There is, however, no “high” or “low” section. The remainder bin still denotes failure. The image alone suggests literary genocide: killed because they did not sell. Myers’s Manifesto simply argues that each predicate adjective denotes a failure in language. “Evocative” is unladylike because language gets too busy and fussy. “Muscular” veers to the baroque. “Spare” (Auster is the prime suspect) is tautological. Beware of the “scrotum slap” in the “literary” section of the “Manifesto.” What is the common denominator in all of this? It is imprecision in language. The rest of the work – character, plot, or whatever you read for sustenance, suffers. Myers’s case and examples are compelling, but my question is, “Where was the editor?” Is the good name of an author merely a brand that sells and nobody takes the writer to task? Cough. Is the writer really such a genius that not one person can point to the sentence on the pages and say, “It doesn’t work, Waldo, and here is why.”
So Peck dared to declaw some literary lions. He faults Joyce with setting the precedent of writing for himself and the hell with the paying public. The not-talked-about subject is the American habit of demarcating literature as literature and Literature with a capital L. Genre fiction, for example, – mysteries, police procedurals, romance, science fiction, suspense, thrillers — is not considered Literature; rather, it’s slumming in the literary ghetto; and if you want to be nasty about it: there reeks class distinction. Genre literature is what they read while we read Lit·er·a·ture (enunciate every syllable and you get the idea). It’s a meadow muffin – a load of crap, but I’ll be presumptuous that we have all met folks who dismiss Stephen King and Danielle Steele as pop lit and claim to stay up late at night reading John Banville or Umberto Eco by flashlight. I talked to a person who claimed to have read Eco’s The Name of the Rose. I asked what he did about those pesky parts, like the Latin Eco did not translate. He glossed over them because they were not important. This being before Google, I let it slide and considered it a heroic effort, like the brain freeze from cold ice cream. Today, if I heard hear those same words I’d think of Apuleius’ The Golden Ass. Apparently ‘popular literature’ is equated with the plebian, decline, moral decay, and the dumbing-down of America. If that is true, it didn’t happen overnight. Just as Rome had not been built in a day, it did not fall over night.
The specious argument of gender inequality: that publishing ignores women while men get all the limelight is just that: marketing distraction. Pick any bestseller list and women are present. I’m not sure what constitutes parity – should half of the list be women because they are 54% of the population? I don’t know. EL James and Suzanne Collins seem to be doing okay. The aforementioned Danielle Steele has consistently beaten the boys up in the literary marketplace. Barbara Cartland reigns supreme. Of course we are talking numbers and sales and herd mentality; that does not a ‘classic’ make. What does? I’d say universality of theme and humanity.
Myers and Peck seem to think quality control has gone to pot. As for those specialty sections, I do not subscribe to the balkanization of privileged experience. Good writing belongs on the shelf, A to Z. Being a black writer, queer, or whatever may rightly be painful, politically and socially unjust, and unique, but it is also excellent material. Make it powerful so everyone can understand it. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is situated in a cultural and historical context, but it also alludes to Homer and the myth of Philomela in The Odyssey, Sophocles’ tragedy, Tereus, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the poetry of Chaucer, Gower, Keats, Shelley, and T.S. Eliot. While modernist literature has updated the medieval tradition of intertextuality into a clever parlor game, I doubt that Maya Angelou smiled once while writing her autobiography.
James Michener, John Jakes, and James Clavell all wrote compelling historical fiction. Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, and Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays are just as culturally insightful and incisive as any of the ‘serious books.’ I am certain that every one of them had hard-nosed editors. But the moment Harold Bloom praised Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: instant, unquestioned ‘classic.’ The venerable Bloom then retreated like Punxsutawney Phil. Critics or others, like NPR, have declared: Philip Roth is the American writer since he came out with Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969. Really? Numerous readers have faulted him for his lack of empathy for his women characters. Oy vey! I’ve always thought of Roth as the Jewish Updike. In this milieu one understands why Peck suggests that an enema is prudent. No, he doesn’t pull any punches; but Peck, for all his fiery language, hates the idea that he hates the literature he has read over the years. He sounds like Diogenes looking for that one honest author and book.
If you want to read a screed that is often funny, at times caustic and impolite, with no BS, then read Dale Peck’s Hatchet Jobs. If you prefer a similar discussion, but less angry, tamer and with plenty of examples, then check out B.R. Myers’s Atlantic essay, or the full-length book, A Reader’s Manifesto. Decide on your own.
Me? I’d rather tell a good story. All the language in the world doesn’t mean a damn thing to me if I can’t hang up my coat on something and stay a while. I want to spend time with a character that I not only care about, but in whose world I’d like to stay in for a bit. I want to hear them breathe and see that they are flawed human beings. As a writer, I modulate my use of language to the story. I’d prefer to be invisible, secondary to the story, without calling attention to myself. No one sentence should be a guitar solo. I also like to take chances and not do the same thing over and over again. As for critics, all the intellectual palaver is nice for high tea and cucumber sandwiches in the park, but I suspect it is a cover to hide the fact that the workweek was spent in front of the television. The simple truth is this: readers are not stupid; they know when a story does not work, but they have compassion; they will grant a writer time and space. This mercy is especially poignant with a writer they admire. It is unfortunate that some readers believe that they are not up to the task of reading quote serious books unquote. To them I say: it’s not you; it’s bad writing.
The writer who does not respect a reader’s mortal time, the writer who is trying to show off his/her knowledge, dropping names or using speech that is not authentic, is not acting in a decent manner towards the reader. Harsh, I know, but take into consideration that there are writers who are murdered for what they write. That ‘respect for the reader’ does not mean that the language must be so direct and naked that there is no foreplay, no seduction, because anyone with experience can sense insincerity, the false pleasure, and see all the scripted moves as egotistical posturing. The artistry is lost, the balance uneven. Authors risk failing the reader and diminishing their own shelf-esteem. The aesthetic experience however that is defined is in the excitement, getting from here to the bedroom, or wherever you read. The greatest resource both author and reader share is language. Any person who has managed to graduate from secondary school has a working vocabulary of a few thousand words with which to exist and function in culture and society. That is a solid foundation for imaginative freedom; the liberation comes from closing one door and opening another one with the turn of a page. Read what makes you feel alive, read what reminds you that you are alive.