Dale Peck must be wondering if his strategy for calling attention to himself and for waging verbal war against most of his fellow writers was worth the consequences of actually gaining that attention. Now that the whole thing has degenerated into the ugly farce of "bitch-slapping" discussed on tabloid tv, one hopes he has decided that literary warfare of this kind only trivializes the cause of serious writing, the very endeavor Peck professed to be defending. If Peck had been engaged in honest literary criticism in the first place, rather than merely projecting a kind of free-floating, incendiary "attitude," I might feel sorry for him, but as it is I can't help concluding he has received the very response his "hatchet jobs" were inviting.
In the aftermath of Crouch vs. Peck, however, I am more interested in the comments made by Leon Wieseltier, as reported in the New York Observer. As the literary editor of The New Republic, Wieseltier was ultimately the one responsible for soliciting, editing, and publishing Peck's "reviews" of Rick Moody, Stanley Couch, et. al., and even more than Peck he should have known what kind of reaction they would provoke. What does he now have to say for himself?
Mr. Peck’s unpopularity, Mr. Wieseltier said, "makes it more necessary to be clear that what Stanley did is unacceptable.
"Hitting someone for something they’ve written represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the intellectual’s vocation," Mr. Wieseltier said. . . .
Mr. Wieseltier said that after Mr. Peck’s review ran in The New Republic, he offered Mr. Crouch—also a contributor to the magazine—"ample space" to write a rebuttal. "I knew that Dale’s piece would be very wounding," Mr. Wieseltier said. "And I wanted to be fair."
Having known that Peck's review would be "very wounding," Wieseltier chose to run it anyway, but now "hitting someone" is a betrayal of "the intellectual's vocation?"? What sanctimonious blather. Which wound is likely to be the longest-lasting and was the most unprovoked: the bitch-slap or the hatchet job? Is inflicting any kind of wound part of the intellectual's vocation? And who's most reponsible for Dale Peck's current "unpopularity"? Who encouraged him to be an irresponsible critic in the first place, to substitute invective for analysis?
Wieseltier surely has a lot of gall to talk about the "intellectual's vocation" in this context. There was nothing "intellectual" about Peck's reviews. (This doesn't mean that Peck isn't or can't be an intellectual, to the extent anyone would want to be one of those. It does mean that his reviews were themselves the betrayal of the intellectual's vocation: to interpret carefully, to give good reasons for one's judgments, to avoid self-display.) Publishing them in The New Republic was not a contribution to intellectual debate, but a wholesale attack on contemporary fiction for not measuring up to the ponderous standards of literary moralism Wieseltier's book review section purports to uphold.
For Wieseltier and the reviewers he most often turns to are indeed exemplars of the current version of "moral criticism," the approach to literature that, in the succinct definition provided by Hugh Holman, "judges art according to ethical principles." At its best, moral criticism considers literature to be the greatest repository of illustrated "ethical principles," and takes works of literature seriously for this reason. (Although I myself can't see that literature really serves this purpose, or that it does so other than serendipitously.) At its worst, moral criticism is interested in literature only tangentially, to the extent it provides the occasion for moral reflection or discourse. This kind of criticism frequently dismisses the aesthetic qualities of literature outright (usually moral critics discuss only fiction, since poetry is obviously already too aesthetic for its own good). Here's Wieseltier approvingly describing Lionel Trilling in his introduction to the Trilling anthology The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent: "He did not read to be ravished. He was exercised more by 'the moral imagination' than by the imagination. And he grew increasingly suspicious of art. . .In works of literature Trilling found mainly the records of concepts and sentiments and values. . .Trilling was a very unliterary literary critic. His conception of his critical duty was less professional and less playful--and bigger. The novels and the poems that he pondered were documents for a moral history of his culture. Finally, he was a historian of morality working with literary materials. . . ."
Although Wieseltier remarks that these obsessions on Trilling's part "marked his limitation as a critic of literature," they are limitations only if you think there's merit in being a "literary literary critic," which Wieseltier and most other moral critics pretty clearly think there isn't. And I invite readers to determine for themselves how many of the attitudes attributed here to Trilling seem to be shared by Dale Peck. "Suspicious of art"? Novels as "documents for a moral history of his culture"?
Exactly how moral is it to write and publish essays that verbally attack most writers in sight, that condemn current writers en masse as morally defecient in too many ways to count, and to do so in language and tone (and this is true not just of the reviews by Peck in The New Republic) that is by turns smarmy, cynical, and mocking? In the final analysis, what kind of contribution to literary culture, to literature, is it to pronounce almost all contemporary fiction a waste of one's time? How many clueless, narrow-minded, self-righteous killjoys have said similar things in the past about books now unambiguously considered great?
Violence certainly is a violation of the intellectual's responsibilities, but so are disingenuousness and hypocrisy.