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July 15, 2002

That’s something you don’t see every day
Posted by Teresa at 07:45 AM *

Dale Peck, in The New Republic, goes completely off the deep end while reviewing Rick Moody’s The Black Veil: A Memoir With Digressions:

Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.

I apologize for the abruptness of this declaration, its lack of nuance, of any meaning besides the intuitive; but as I made my way through Moody’s oeuvre during the past few months I was unable to come up with any other starting point for a consideration of his accomplishment. Or, more accurately, every other starting point that I tried felt disingenuous, nothing more than a way of setting Moody up in order to knock him down. One of those starting points was this: “Rick Moody is a lot of things, but he is not actually dumb.” This was an attempt at charity, and though I still think that it’s true enough, I don’t think that it matters; at any rate, his intelligence does not make up for the badness of his books. Another attempt: “In his breakthrough novel The Ice Storm, Rick Moody evinces a troubling fascination with adolescent sexual organs that is partially explained in his latest book, The Black Veil, a so-called ‘memoir with digressions.’” Again, the observation strikes me as correct. The problem here was in assuming that what most readers think of as the subject of a story has any role in a Moody project beyond giving his tangled prose something to wrap itself around, the way a vine will wrap itself around the nearest thing to hand, be it trellis, tree, or trash.

Yet another false start: “The Black Veil is the worst of Rick Moody’s very bad books.” Here the first mistake was in focusing on the books themselves, which bear the same relationship to Moody’s career as his subjects do to his prose: the former come across as little more than a prop for the latter, incidental, interchangeable. Moreover, Garden State, Moody’s first book—despite his citing “the proposition put forth by a vocal minority: that Garden State is my best novel”—is, in fact, even worse than The Black Veil; and “The Black Veil is the second worst of Rick Moody’s very bad books” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Stop reading here if you are looking for a calm dissection of the work of Hiram Frederick Moody III. At this point, the use of the diminutive “Rick” is about the only wise decision that I am willing to give him credit for. The plain truth is that I have stared at pages and pages of Moody’s prose and they remain as meaningless to me as the Korean characters that paper the wall of a local restaurant. Actually, the comparison is not particularly apt, because I know that the Korean writing means something, but I am not convinced that Moody’s books are about anything at all. In fact, it is only when I consider The Black Veil stripped of any pretense to content that I can ascribe it a measure of objecthood—not as the diagnostic, hermeneutical genealogy that it purports to be, but rather as the latest in what I have come to regard as a series of imitations or echoes of Moody’s more talented, or at any rate more authentically individual, peers.

A little later:
Moody’s badness is a little less inexplicable if you look at him as the lowest common denominator of a generation of writers—and readers: they, too, bear some responsibility for the condition of fiction—who have long since forgotten what the modernist and postmodernist assaults on linearity were actually about, and as such have lost the ability to tell the difference between ambiguity and inscrutability, ambition and bombast; of writers who are taken at face value when they are being ironic and who are deemed ironic when they are telling it straight—assuming, of course, that they themselves know the difference. Assuming, I should add, that they actually have a subject.
This goes on for pages. In detail.
Comments on That's something you don't see every day:
#1 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2002, 10:18 AM:

It was a definitely a surprise coming from the New Republic. But I have to say that there's a lot to agree with about his assessment of Moody's fiction (not necessarily the memoir, which I haven't read), to the extent that Moody often gets carried away with his own prose at the expense of story. I love your statement, Teresa (quoted on Patrick's page) that 'story is a force of nature.' But it's something I definitely don't find in much of Moody's short stories and in 'Purple America.'

#2 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2002, 12:26 PM:

I thought the best part was when he maligned the entire twentieth-century tradition of (to use his term) "canonical postmodernism":

"I don't want to suggest that they are uniformly talentless or misguided; or that there is a conspiracy among them, or among them and the editors of _The New Yorker_ or _Harper's_ or _The Paris Review_; or that they invest any of their energy in excluding others from the upper echelons of the literary world. All I'm suggesting is that these writers (and their editors) see themselves as the heirs to a bankrupt tradition. A tradition that began with the diarrheic flow of words that is Ulysses; continued on through the incomprehensible ramblings of late Faulkner and the sterile inventions of Nabokov; and then burst into full, foul life in the ridiculous dithering of Barth and Hawkes and Gaddis, and the reductive cardboard constructions of Barthelme, and the word-by-word wasting of a talent as formidable as Pynchon's; and finally broke apart like a cracked sidewalk beneath the weight of the stupid--just plain stupid--tomes of DeLillo."

Just as in that assault on the modern novel that ran in _The Atlantic_ last year, this one has me for a little bit: what Moody I've read hasn't impressed me. But Pynchon's talent wasted "word-by-word"? DeLillo as "just plain stupid"? (The idea that Pynchon or Joyce or DeLillo are representative of a system that has "divested itself of any ability to comment on anything other than its own inability to comment on anything" strikes me as absurd on the face of it; if anything, the problem that the three writers have in common is that they're trying to jam too much of the human experience into their work.) When I read things like that, it makes me think that the writer -just doesn't get it-.

#3 ::: Laurie Mann ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2002, 02:43 PM:

I've read Purple America and liked it very much.

I intend to read Ice Storm (loved the movie) and
The Black Veil (which has gotten generally
favorable reviews).

If you want bad modern writers, stick with David
Foster Wallace.

Most of the modern writers
need an editor in the worst way; whole sections
of The Corrections, a book I generally admired,
needed a good editor to get the wrting into
better shape.

#4 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2002, 10:20 PM:

You'd notice that, John; you're a storyteller yourself.

To me, Peck sounds goaded, as though he's reached one of those moments of exasperation when you'll say worse about a group that strikes you as sharing some objectionable characteristic than you'd say in a cooler-headed moment about most of the individuals involved.

I've had to read books for which I had no sympathy whatsoever, and I ranted too. There's something about the experience that's unpleasant beyond the sum of its parts.

Steve, I took "canonical postmodernism" as a grace note. I'll grant that he's gone overboard. I know too many people who simply enjoy works by those authors, without pretense or mediation. Still, I think he's getting at something real. He hasn't got it pinned down, but he knows he's on to something, which may be why he's thrashing so furiously. Besides, I have to admire the effrontery of a maneuver like:

"Again, this is not meant to malign the aforementioned writers. I don't want to suggest that they are uniformly talentless or misguided; or that there is a conspiracy among them, or among them and the editors of The New Yorker or Harper's or The Paris Review; or that they invest any of their energy in excluding others from the upper echelons of the literary world. All I'm suggesting..."

Laurie, is it David Foster Wallace's fiction or nonfiction you have in mind? I haven't read his fiction, but he's a good essayist. And how can you start a sentence with "If you want bad modern writers," and not end it with "H. C. Turk"? =Black Body= is so bad that a faint air of the supernatural clings to it.

I'm under the impression that these novels do have editors. It's a mystery.

#5 ::: Mary Kay Kare ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2002, 11:58 PM:

Teresa says, "I'm under the impression that these novels do have editors. It's a mystery."

Which reminded me of the mystery I threw across the room today. It was the woman's 4th published book and it sucked dirty ditchwater. (Is there any ohter kind of ditchwater is a question that suddenly occurs to me, but I digress.) The writing was awful; full of juvenile mistakes, continuity errors, passive voice, and dialog really truly worthy of George Lucas. I'm getting a *strong* fit of the I can do better than that itis.

MKK

#6 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2002, 01:38 AM:

Teresa, have you read the _Atlantic_ piece I mentioned?* Perhaps my reaction to Peck's column was colored not just by the fact that I read and enjoyed** Gravity's Rainbow quite recently (and would like to think that I'm not a dupe of the _Paris Review_), but by that piece. It was an attack on, umm, Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster, the _Snow Falling on Cedars_ guy, and Don DeLillo. I think Proulx is immensely overrated, so I enjoyed the opening. I haven't read _All the Pretty Horses_, and the author certainly selected some passages that sounded unfortunate shorn of their context. The _Snow Falling on Cedars_ guy is a hack, albeit a prizewinning one. I have no opinion whatsoever on Auster, having read only one story. But his reading of _White Noise_ was terrible! Awful! He didn't get the jokes, he completely missed the fact that the main character is a (very funny) send-up, he singled out parodic passages of professorial pretention and punctured their perceived pretense (ahem). It was jaw-grindingly bad. So perhaps when I see that kind of vitriol hurled at a group of writers whom I enjoy despite their occasional bloodlessness, I assume the worst.

Last month I read _The Intuititionist_, by Colson Whitehead, upon whom Peck touched briefly; for what it's worth, Whitehead is writing a book about race and America in a "postmodern pop idiom", but it's also science fiction*** (and quite good as such, for all that it avoids the dreaded genre label). I'm not sure in what possible respects it marks Whitehead as a member of the same "white man's ivory tower" (perhaps _John Henry Days_ will make it clear) that gloomy ol' Nabokov and Barthelme inhabit except that Whitehead has developed a critical reputation that Peck seems to disapprove of.

And none of this is meant to say that Moody is a good writer.

* http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2001/07/myers.htm

** http://www.snarkout.org/year/archives/00000067.html

*** Or, you know, genre fiction of some kind. Not really s.f., but it earns the title at least as much as _There Are Doors_.

**** Please appreciate the subtle David Foster Wallace reference; also, the fact that you've turned off links suggests that I should be doing responses of this length on my own durn website and leave your poor abused comments system alone.

#7 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2002, 01:39 AM:

Awww, heck. Do a Google search for "Atlantic Proulx DeLillo" if you're interested; my Gravity's Rainbow review is available at snarkout.org/year.

#8 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2002, 07:56 AM:

I've turned off links? What? More on these other issues anon.

I'm sure "you've turned off links" is a common phrase and I'm now going to see it twenty times a day, but at this moment I don't know what it means. To the best of my knowledge, I haven't turned off anything. Can you tell me what you're seeing?

#9 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2002, 09:01 AM:

TNH: I've turned off links?

Answered in email, to avoid boring geek subjects.

#10 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2002, 09:18 AM:

I think Steve makes a good case about the Atlantic piece. I must say I enjoyed most of it, without always agreeing (for example, I loved Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses). And I could see the points about Annie Proulx. I put down Shipping News after about 60 pages. Not bad, but I felt she was over-writing and it got on my nerves.

My antidote to bad writing is always to retreat to my large well-worn hard cover collection of William Trevor's short stories, or to gingerly open my first volume Pocket paperback of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. These guys write the best prose I've ever read, but they never let the story get away from them....

#11 ::: Janet Lafler ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2002, 03:08 PM:

TNR has a habit of being deliberate contrarians in literary matters. They published a rather nasty pan of The Corrections when other reviewers were falling all over themselves praising it, for example.

This screed: My reaction to the dissing of canonical postmodernism (as quoted here; I haven't read the whole article) was to think that, gee, whether whether the critic is praising or blaming, you'd think that no women were writing during the last century.

Proulx: There's a very specific idiosyncracy in her writing that made it difficult for me to read The Shipping News until I got used to it: she uses lots of sentence fragments in ways that most writers don't. So I would read a sentence, get to the end, realize that it was a fragment, and have to go back and read the sentence again with the proper rhythm and/or inflection. Very annoying at first, but I remember persevering and enjoying the book in the end -- though not enough to want to read anything else of hers.

/Janet

#12 ::: steve ::: (view all by) ::: July 18, 2002, 03:32 PM:

"A tradition that began with the diarrheic flow of words that is Ulysses; continued on through the incomprehensible ramblings of late Faulkner and the sterile inventions of Nabokov..."
Anyone who writes that about three of the greatest writers of the past century cannot have anything to say about literature that is worth reading. I'm not being snobbish here; there are legitimate complaints to be made about many of the other writers being ranted about, indeed about Joyce and Faulkner and Nabokov (nobody's perfect), but someone else will have to make them. This person doesn't know what good writing is.

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