Who Else But Dale Peck?

Wow. This has to be one of the more self-indulgent, nonsensical things I’ve seen in a book review in quite some time:

Broadly speaking, Western literature — the poems, plays and stories told from Moscow to Buenos Aires, from the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” to “The Corrections” and “Freedom,” with postcolonial contributions from India and South Africa and even more far-flung parts of the conquered globe — can be divided into two traditions. The first, what we might call the canonical or public or, more generously, the democratic tradition, finds its roots in ancient Greece, and traces a fairly straightforward line through Rome and the Renaissance and the European colonization of the Americas and other parts of the world. This is a literature that measures itself in successive aesthetic innovations, in language that, however manipulated, finds its idiom in the vernacular rather than the orthodox, and in an increasingly representative cast of characters and behaviors, from early ecumenical existentialism (the acts of the gods and their consequences for kings and heroes) to the domestic dramas of Tolstoy and García Márquez and Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie. In other words, it encompasses about 99 percent of all books.

In contrast to this is a tradition that begins more or less with the novel itself, i.e., “Don Quixote” (although the case can be made that it also starts with Homer, albeit with the brooding Achilles, whose actions are motivated by nothing beyond the immediate satisfaction or alleviation of some need, rather than the equally selfish Odys­seus, whose every deed is calculated to secure fame after death), and wends its way through various misfits, misanthropes and criminals constitutionally incapable of resigning themselves to the social contract: Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Dostoyevsky’s underground man, Knut Hamsun’s self-starving doppelgänger in “Hunger.” In lieu of ­offering a rational critique of the world they inhabit, the antiheroes of the second tradition simply hate or reject it, just as their creators, far from seeing literature as a tool for cultural or even individual salvation, write only to give voice to a sense of alienation from oneself, one’s peers and one’s place in history.

Blah, blah, blah. I’m surprised the Times’ editorial staff let this stand . . . or, actually, I’m not. But seriously . . . the idea that the antihero novel comprises 1 percent of all literature? Absurd. Consider that this is one of the most popular genres of 20th-century literature–if not the most popular–and that more novels have been published in the 20th century than all prior centuries combined . . . that 1 percent claim is unsupportable. (Of course, there’s enough plausible deniability built into Peck’s vague statements to wiggle out of this claim . . . )

And then the whole idea that the creators of books from Don Quixote to The Metamorphosis wrote to “give voice to a sense of alienation from oneself, one’s peers and one’s place in history.” As if concepts like “history,” “society,” and even “peers” had anything like similar meanings to Cervantes and Kafka–or even Kafka and Dostoevsky. The social contract didn’t even exist when Cervantes wrote!

This all serves to point out the fact that the hero (or antihero) as a concept throughout the history of the novel has changed substantially since the 1600s, and to just claim some lineage throughout 400 years or more based on some general misfittedness makes barely any sense. After all, exactly how much does Tristram Shandy have in common with the Underground Man? Can you even invent a useful category that can encompass both of them?

I’m not arguing here that it’s futile to attempt to trace trends throughout this history of the novel, but you clearly need to be more serious than the half-baked theory served up here. That’s one reason why this kind of loose talk has no place in a book review.

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You are quite right to call Peck out on his literary posing here. If you’re going to do that ‘there’s really only two types of writing…’ bit, it should in some way elucidate things and make them seem simpler. But then some reviewers are always far too pleased with the tap-tap of their own fingers on the keyboard for that.

My favourite dichotomy is Robert Lowell’s separation of writing into ‘raw’ and ‘cooked’:


I also like the aside about “postcolonial contributions from India and South Africa and even more far-flung parts of the conquered globe.” Everything from the point of view of the West…

I didn’t know what the hell that guy was jabbering about when I read the review yesterday. It kind of reminded me of when James Wood divided the novel into two distinct traditions a while ago, but at least his categories made more sense, if still being reductive. I had a feeling you might not like his review, after he basically dismissed Prose in a sentence or two.

Even if we accept as possible the idea that Western literature may be divided into two “traditions” (and I’m bored by such talk), and that those two traditions may be described by percentages, Peck’s argument rests on an amusing category error: that 1% (or 99%) of anything could constitute a tradition. One might as well talk about the human tradition of bipedalism, or of going about with two heads singing arias.


The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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