Pecking Order

“Dale Peck is the Michael Ovitz of the literary world,” says agent Bonnie Nadell. She’s referring to the novelist’s jaw-droppingly scathing review in The New Republic of Rick Moody’s memoir, The Black Veil.

The nearly 6,000-word-long tirade – which begins “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation” and goes on to pulverize practically everyone in American literature, from William Faulkner to David Foster Wallace – has the literary world aflame.

“He’s just trying to draw attention to himself,” says Stanley Crouch – another of Peck’s recent hit jobs. “It’s a career move.” But others welcome the screed, in which Peck skewers Moody for everything except his decision to go by Rick.

“Our reviewers are such a bunch of brownnosing back-scratchers,” says literary agent Chris Calhoun. “Though I don’t think Peck had the chops, it’s nice to see somebody pick a fight.”

“We have no company policy on Rick Moody; he’s not the war on Afghanistan,” says the mischievous Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic. “If Dale had admired Moody, we would have published his admiration.”

Wieseltier adds, “We’re not in the business of instructing readers on what to pack for Amagansett. There are principles at stake in literary reputations.”

Principles indeed, counters Adrienne Miller, the literary editor of Esquire: “I think editors have an ethical obligation to publish responsible reviews. And if somebody is going to come out with such an incendiary piece, he’d better have the credibility to do it.”

So what gives Peck the authority to trash Faulkner? His first novel, Martin and John, was published to lavish praise in 1993, when he was all of 25. But he had an ugly falling-out with his publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, after his third novel, and his career has yet to skyrocket, prompting speculation that the frustrated writer may have turned bitchy reviewer.

In his St. Marks walk-up, Peck says, “When I see people profaning at the temple of literature, I want to throw them out. I think one’s task as a book reviewer, and a novelist, is to say, ‘You guys are in our way.’ ” (Well, maybe, but if Faulkner were in their way, most writers would want him to stay there.)

Peck adds that Wieseltier wouldn’t have published a nice review: “He doesn’t assign me books that I’m going to like. What can I say? I write bad reviews well.”

Moody couldn’t be reached, but his editor, Michael Pietsch, e-mailed: “I expect Rick is proud to be castigated for qualities he shares with James Joyce … Vladimir Nabokov, and Thomas Pynchon… . Rick is a musical writer. I suppose there are people who listen to John Coltrane and hear only noise. There’s no arguing taste, but I feel sad for them.”

Pecking Order