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Friday, October 24, 2003
The problem with absolutist negative reviewing like that practiced by Dale Peck is that, like with Mark Ames or Pitchfork, half the time I can prove them to be objectively wrong, or at least get to the point where the authors/supporters are simply offering weak excuses or nonsensical justifications. I've never done so with Peck mostly because he seems to care far more than I do--if he starts in on Lethem or A.M. Holmes or something I'll step to, but I could give a shit about Rick Moody. But hey, maybe we'll get lucky at some point.

The problem, broadly, is that the absolutists are pro-sincerity and anti-irony. Unfortunately, statements like "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation" aren't actually true; the retarded guy working at McDonald's is the worst writer of his generation. And so they are being--duhn duhn DAH!--ironic and insincere. Especially if, as Peck and others readily admit, they are simply using overstatement to get our attention, and how is that better that Klosterman's far more honest self-aware wholehearted embracing of things he doesn't entirely believe? It ain't. Of course, they would defend these outbursts as necessary to break through the wall of incompetence and laziness and apathy that afflicts culture, that a little lying is necessary to reach THE TRUTH. (We agree with you, gents--and it is always gents, isn't it?--but that's called irony, you'll recall.) Problem is a) this assumes that they have the truth, and, well, wake me when that's the case; and b) it's all predicated on the image of the critic as alone in their genius and persecuted by bad taste. Ha. Mister, there are lots of very vocal people out there who don't like many things and enjoy being creatively mean; this particular stance hardly makes you unique. It's needlessly AUR. (And bullshit pseudo-Bangsianism to boot.) For instance:

In the afterword to ''Hatchet Jobs,'' Peck reports that his hands are ''literally shaking'' as he types his indictment of modernism ''like a fugitive'' in the middle of the night. ''Sometimes even I am overwhelmed by the enormity of what I'm saying.''

"Enormity"? Christ almighty. Look, Galileo's discoveries can be characterized that way. Martin Luther's theses. Ghandi's civil disobedience. Indicting modernism? Yeah. Not so much. It's been done a few times before, if I recall correctly--like, for instance, by those post-modernists who you don't like vewy much.

Similarly, it presumes that this is an effective technique, which seems doubtful to me. Why would that kind of thing actually change people's attitudes? Isn't it just, as suggested in the article, a technique to get more money for the publication and more notice for the critic? Seems likely.

Then again, I don't know if I can add anything to this:

Peck himself wasn't so fashionable -- or maybe he was by downtown standards. He wore baggy knee-length pants and a short-sleeved checked shirt. He had arrived by bicycle and was sweating profusely; his spiky hair stood up on his head. He had just come from his therapist, he told me after we found a table shielded by a white umbrella and ordered drinks. Had they talked about our interview? I asked. ''We talked about it, and I started crying out of the blue,'' Peck said. Did he have any idea why? ''I've been thinking of ending therapy because I haven't been engaging. While I was at the gym, before therapy, I was thinking that there was an incredible similarity between my feelings about therapy and this interview and the reviews I write. The StairMaster was a metaphor; I was running in place.''


The argument can be made that there's actually a core of good, positive criticism in a lot of these pieces. But of that not unreasonable claim I have to ask: then why the disproportionate negativity? To get attention? Well, you know, that's not the only way to get attention. There's always the theory that if you point out something about a piece of art that no one else has, or that you make a connection or a theory about it that is relatively new or interesting, that will get you a lot of attention, too. And from that view, it's hard not to see negative absolutist criticism as anything other than self-interested laziness, the work of writers with a talent for insults but not insight, looking to elevate themselves as essentially entertainers while angrily decrying the value of entertainment in art. Come down here and play in the sandbox with the rest of us, kids. It's way more fun.