DeLillo Detractors

Not everyone is so impressed by DeLillo's work. Here I've picked out a few of the less complimentary comments that have appeared, which debatably make some good points, and are often amusing in any case. Most recent detractors on top.

Dale Peck - "just plain stupid"

Novelist Dale Peck is the latest to join the hallowed DeLillo Detractors group! In a review entitled "The Moody Blues" in The New Republic (July 1, 2002 issue) that focused in on Rick Moody's latest 'memoir' The Black Veil, Peck goes out of his way to dis a bunch of contemporary writers.

Peck seems to see DeLillo as the culmination of a long chain of bad writing starting from James Joyce:

In my view, the wrong turn starts around the time Stephen Dedalus goes to college in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and echoes all the way through Don DeLillo's ponderously self-important rendering of Bobby Thompson's shot heard round the world in the opening chapter of Underworld.

Then later in the review he names names.

And yet there is that urgency I mentioned before, the hysterical desire to be heard. For all its shrillness, Moody's volume strikes me as something more than the antics of a child needing attention. I say this as a fellow novelist: though he has never put together a single sentence that I would call indispensable, there is a true empathetic undercurrent in Moody's work. I find the same current in the work of David Foster Wallace and Jeffrey Eugenides and Colson Whitehead, but not in the work of Richard Powers and Dave Eggers and Donald Antrim and Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Lethem. I find it in Thomas Pynchon but not in Don DeLillo, here and there in John Barth and Donald Barthelme but almost entirely absent in John Fowles and John Hawkes and William Gaddis, in Lolita but not in Pale Fire, in the early Joyce, the first one and a half books, but not in the last two and a half books.

Together, these writers represent the most esoteric strain of twentieth-century literature, what some people think of as the highest of high canonical postmodernism, and what I, with all due respect to Colson Whitehead, prefer to think of as the white man's ivory tower. [...]

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 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.

I had long thought that George Will's "bad citizen" line (see below) would keep the crown, but "just plain stupid" is perhaps more fun for the new century. Maybe Scribner can use this line on the next book!

B. R. Myers

In the July/August 2001 issue of Atlantic Monthly, an article appears entitled "A Reader's Manifesto" by B. R. Myers, about whom little information is provided. Myers makes the claim that modern American literary fiction is clumsy and pretentious, and provides examples from a number of authors, including Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster and our Man DeLillo. In a section labeled '"Edgy" Prose' Myers turns his sights on DeLillo's White Noise. Here are some excerpts.

Of the first paragraph of White Noise:

This is the sort of writing, full of brand names and wardrobe inventories, that critics like to praise as an "edgy" take on the insanity of modern American life. It's hard to see what is so edgy about describing suburbia as a wasteland of stupefied shoppers, which is something left-leaning social critics have been doing since the 1950s. Still, this is foolproof subject matter for a novelist of limited gifts.

Then, more generally,

Another source of spurious profundity is DeLillo's constant allusions to momentous feelings and portents - allusions that are either left hanging in the air or are conveniently cut short by a narrative pretext. Jack ponders the clutter in his house: "Why do these possessions carry such sorrowful weight? There is a darkness attached to them, a foreboding. They make me wary not of personal failure and defeat but of something more general, something large in scope and content." What is this something large in scope and content? We are never told.

To top it off, apparently Myers did not find much humor in the book. Oh well...

George Will

The famous George Will article appeared in the Washington Post, Sept 22, 1988 (p.A25). Here are a few choice snippets of Will's feelings about DeLillo and Libra:

...the book ... is an act of literary vandalism and bad citizenship.

DeLillo says he is just filling in "some of the blank spaces in the known record." But there is no blank space large enough to accommodate, and not a particle of evidence for, DeLillo's lunatic conspiracy theory. In the book's weaselly afterword, he says he has made "no attempt to furnish factual answers." But in a New York Times interview he says, "I purposely chose the most obvious theory because I wanted to do justice to historical likelihood."

History, says a DeLillo character, is "the sum total of all the things they aren't telling us." Of course. "They." That antecedentless pronoun hants the fevered imaginations of paranoiacs. For conspiracy addicts like DeLillo, the utter absence of evidence, after 25 years of search, proves not that there was no conspiracy but that the conspiracy was diabolically clever.

It is well to be reminded by books like this of the virulence of the loathing some intellectuals feel for American society, and of the frivolous thinking that fuels it.

What was unfairly said of a far greater writer (T.S. Eliot, born in St. Louis 100 years ago this Monday) must be said of DeLillo: he is a good writer and a bad influence.

Jonathan Yardley

The Washington Post book reviewer Jonathan Yardley has problems with DeLillo as well. His review of The Names on October 10, 1982 stuck to the novel in its comments. "The Names is an accomplished and intelligent novel, the work of a writer of clear if chilly brilliance, but it takes on too many themes and wanders in too many directions to find a coherent shape."

The review of White Noise on January 13, 1985 got a bit more personal.

For lovers of pure prose, the novel is a trip; the trouble is that when you step back from it and view it clinically, it proves to be a trip to nowhere--yet another of DeLillo's exercises in fiction as political tract.

This is what makes DeLillo so irritating and frustrating; he's a writer of stupendous talents, yet he wastes those talents on monotonously apocalyptic novels the essential business of which is to retail the shopworn campus ideology of the '60s and '70s.

Yardley's comments on Libra are not too surprising (July 31, 1988). "No doubt Libra will be lavishly praised in those quarters where DeLillo's ostentatiously gloomy view of American life and culture is embraced."

Bruce Bawer

A critical essay entitled "Don DeLillo's America" by Bruce Bawer appeared in The New Criterion in April, 1985. After noting that DeLillo's books appear in most bookstores but it can be hard to find books by "Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner", Bawer makes the following claim:

Most of his novels were born out of a preoccupation with a single theme: namely, that contemporary American society is the worst enemy that the cause of human individuality and self-realization has ever had.

Here are a few points of interest:

One thing that these novels all share, aside from the goodbye-American-dream motif, is a stunning implausability. Representation of reality is not DeLillo's strong suite.

But then, these novels are not meant to be true-to-life tales. They are tracts, designed to batter us, again and again, with a single idea: that life in American today is boring, benumbing, dehumanized. Not only has the American system robbed us of our individuality; the era's despicable technological innovations have afflicted us all with a dreadful condition known as "sensory overload".

It's better, DeLillo seems to say in one novel after another, to be a marauding, murderous maniac--and therefore a human-- than to sit still for America as it is, with its air-conditioners, synthetic fabrics, and credit cards. At least when you're living a life of primitive violence, you're closer to the mystery at the heart of it all. That's what life is to DeLillo: a mystery, an enigma.

If you like your novels studded with these kinds of Philosophy McNuggets, you'll love White Noise.

While those of us who live in the real America carry on with our richly varied, emotionally tumultuous lives, DeLillo (as White Noise amply demonstrates) continues, in effect, to write the same lifeless novel over and over again--a novel contructed upon a simpleminded political cliche, populated by epigram-slinging, epistemology-happy robots, and packed with words that have very little to say to us about our world, our century, or ourselves. If anyone is guilty of turning modern Americans into xerox copies, it is Don DeLillo.

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Last updated: 28-JUL-2002