Sentences That Sum Up Dale Peck

Rake has tried to summarize Dale Peck’s assault on Sven Birkets. But it may be easier by simply singling out sentences:

“Hereís criticismís trade secret: you can find meaning in anything if you look hard enough.” Meaning you couldn’t find anything constructive to say at all? I guess that’s when you break out the Sontag.

“I sure do laugh a lot” I never knew, Dale.

“Ladies and gentlemen, meet Sven Birkerts.” The ego has landed.

“Indulge me for a moment:” I never thought I’d see dialogue from a James Bond villain appear in a critical essay.

“We must linger a moment longer on the subject of ironies and disappointments . . .” Why linger when you can just segue?

“called by what I think is his middle name” You’re kidding, right? You’re going to hold Sven accountable for his name?

“No, Birkertsí only subject here is himself, the inevitable progression from frog-killing child to book-killing critic.” Is this a meta confessional or a critical piece?

“Birkerts, in other words, isnít re-viewing his life in My Sky Blue Trades, heís reviewing it in much the same way he reviews fiction, telling his readers what they can learn from the text of his life.” And what’s wrong with that? It worked for Henry Miller, Nicholson Baker, too many others to list.

“Let me state the obvious and get it out of the way: Sven Birkerts really loves books. To move beyond that, Birkerts doesnít love individual books so much as he loves the edifice of literature and his own conception of himself as a small but integral part of that edificeóthe keyhole, say, maybe even the doorknob.” If loving books and trying to find a place within them is a sin, then nearly every writer is guilty.

“For example, Birkerts dismissed William Gaddis and Don DeLillo as part of the postmodern plague that had ‘infected’ all the arts in his 1986 essay ‘An Open Invitation to Extraterrestrials,’ but had completely reversed his position by the time of his 1998 review of Underworld.” This may be news to you, Dale, but people change.

“He can take the tiniest premise and stretch it out like a child smearing that last teaspoon of peanut butter over a piece of bread, unaware itís spread so thin that it no longer has any taste.” That’s rich coming from a man who writes 5,000 word hit pieces.

“about as interesting to watch as a game of Pong” When you can’t cite specific examples, resort to batty metaphors.

“But Birkerts wants to do more than merely bring books to readers. He wants to tell readers how they should be reading them. He doesnít want to represent the canon, he wants to explain it.” This is a bad thing? And how can we judge Birkets’ overall failure at explanations from a single paragraph?

“in horseshoes, a ringer is worth three points…” I didn’t realize Peck got out of the house.

“It is a large oeuvre. Six books, hundreds of essays. The temptation is to refute each one individually, but to engage with the arguments is, at the end of the day, to give them more credence than they deserve.” In other words, Peck’s approaching his maximum word count. So legitimately addressing the arguments is out of the question.

” Iíve been looking for a contemporary criticís work to discuss for some time.” So there was a pretext here.


  1. These are the things you miss when you try for “schoolboy earnest” in your summation. Damn.

    The peanut butter simile is terrible (and probably physically impossible), but I think the coup de grace is Peck accusing Birkerts of being a bad Latvian. Fighting words.

  2. Together, you and the Rake have told me everything I want to know about this essay. It’s one of the few times I’m grateful for the opportunity not to read.

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