Reading his reviews, there is a sense that Peck's writing is motored by a rage that has little to do with literature. There are clues in his biography. He grew up on Long Island, the son of an alcoholic plumber. His mother died in mysterious circumstances when he was three and he has put it on record that 'violence' may have had something to do with it. When his father discovered his son was gay, he beat him up. Peck's father is important here, if only because his latest book is a 'memoir' about his father's childhood (What We Lost, published in February by Granta).
Dale Peck emerges as a fighter with the evangelical zeal of a Jehovah's Witness for whom the End of the Novel is Nigh. He was educated at Drew University in New Jersey and took a creative writing course at Columbia. He was talent-spotted as a critic by James Wood, who commissioned him to write in the back pages of the New Republic, back pages that were to make front-page news.
Peck's admirers value him because of the scale of his ambitions as a critic. There is an almost suicidal valour about seeing off so many writers with such assurance. And Peck is as scathing about the fiction of the past as he is of the present. The modernist tradition, he writes, 'began with the diarrhoeic 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, 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'. In a single sentence: class dismissed.
When I spoke to Peck in New York, he struck me as at once bellicose and vulnerable. He talks fast and breathlessly, as if still winded by the blow dealt him by modern writers. You might reasonably object that to stick his head above the parapet is not brave, merely a way of achieving visibility. But I warmed to him. He has no sense of self-preservation. 'I write for writers and I just want to say to them: wake up! It is a dream of mine that they will.' When I ask whether he wouldn't rather use something more delicate than a hatchet, he says he doesn't see it as a clumsy instrument - no weapon is too sharp to carve up the modern novel, which he sees as 'a reactionary force in aesthetic terms, irrelevant in cultural terms'.
He goes on: 'Novels and memoirs are on a wrong course. They are either inward-gazing, solipsistic and impotent or unconscious and rarefied, written by recidivist realists who pretend the twentieth century didn't happen.' A critic, he says 'must tell the truth. If something makes you hopping mad, you must be allowed to express it'. But if he dislikes everything he reads, why read at all? Who does he like? Early Philip Roth and Virginia Woolf (strange bedfellows) miss the chop. So do Joan Didion and Toni Morrison. Though, he hastens to add, 'they all have their problems'.
When I ask him to characterise the US reviewing scene, he cheers up: 'I am not sure if you can print this. But they are a bunch of pussies. They are back-scratchers, afraid for their own careers - novelists reviewing their friends' works. It is very dishonest.' Does he ever worry about the effect his reviews may have on writers? 'The truth is that if you can't hack a negative review, you shouldn't be writing at that particular level. I really do believe a novel is nothing more than a strongly expressed opinion and that you need to respond strongly and with vitality.'
Peck is the eye - or I - of the storm and has placed himself at the top of his own Pecking order. He has even gone so far as to say that critics who maintain an 'ironic, impotent distance' are 'teaching people not to read books like mine'. But in his own career, the hatchet has proved mightier than the pen. His own novels have been quietly approved but have not made his name. Should we care about him at all?
If Peck were British, according to the American commentary, his punishing excesses would be greeted with a shrug. The received wisdom on the other side of the Atlantic is that we live tolerantly in a critical snakepit. But is this true? Who are the English Dale Pecks? Is there anyone with his chutzpah? And if we can identify our hatchet men, do we admire them? How much are hatchet men victims of their own temperaments (think of Dale Peck's rage)? And the ultimate question - what are the ethics of criticism in this country?
'Critic' has always been a dirty word. Samuel Beckett, in Waiting for Godot, used it as the climax to a list of insults: vermin - abortion - sewer-rat - curate - cretin... Of these, CRRITIC (the double R spells trouble) was the worst. Christopher Hampton refines the point by saying that to ask a working writer what he thinks of a critic is like asking a dog what it thinks of a lamppost. But a good critic must expect to be unpopular. And be ready to annoy by keeping his horizons wide. Kenneth Tynan put it like this: 'A good drama critic is one who perceives what is happening in the theatre of his time. A great drama critic also perceives what is not happening.' Peck would approve the definition.
Everyone agrees that bad reviews are more memorable than good. If happiness writes white, enthusiasm often registers in shades of pastel. Tibor Fischer specialises in shocking pink. His review of Martin Amis's last novel likened it to seeing 'your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating'. And Julie Burchill, reviewing Helen Fielding's career as well as her novel, wrote: 'When she made it big, it was a bit like realising that your hamster had escaped from its cage - and then you turn on the TV and it's making a speech to the world from the Oval Office, because it's become President of the United States.'
Burchill's review appeared in the London Evening Standard, where David Sexton, its literary editor, has always had hatchet-man potential. I first met him when I was working for the Literary Review, edited by Auberon Waugh. Waugh's critical 'ethics' included admitting that if he had not read a book, he always gave it a positive notice. Perhaps this accounts for his much-used phrase: 'She writes like an angel.'
At that time, Sexton was more interested in felling angels. He wrote a review of a Margaret Drabble novel so cruelly entertaining and personal that I couldn't read it without worrying about her having to suffer it over a long, poisonous breakfast.
Sexton believes there is no ethical problem about such reviews. Reviews are for readers, he says. He thinks it is bordering on immoral to have the author's feelings in mind at all. 'It is a wrong thing to do.' James Wood used to say he saw his reviews as letters to authors, but Sexton believes this is 'completely wrong'. Nor does he buy into the notion that the English critical scene is a snakepit. He sees it as 'massively over-favourable and collusive. There is a pretence now that every book is a new sensation.'
He believes there should be far more negative reviews than there are. He can't think of anything that is 'below the belt. Once a creative work is out in the world, it is in play.' Criticism is not doorstepping, he adds. And yet he makes reviewing sound a drably self- interested affair in which reviewers are keen only to hear the sound of their own voices. 'There is no such thing as a disinterested reviewer,' he maintains.
Sexton does not admire Peck and his 'scatter-gun' approach, but he can readily nominate a trio who are masters of the hatchet job. First contender: Eric Griffiths, fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, who recently damned books by Roger Scruton and Terry Eagleton in the Times Literary Supplement. In these pieces, wit and erudition work to devastating effect. Even his lightest points have a darker purpose: 'Eagleton specialises in quick-fire summary of issues and thinkers; he is a pith-artist.'
Griffiths was particularly contrite about the Scruton piece, telling me that Scruton had been his teacher in his third year at Cambridge and that he has 'vivid and delightful memories' of those occasions. He said the review was a 'duty'. He went on: 'It is a real pity that argued dissent is regularly caricatured as "hatchet job", "savage attack" and other such bulking agents. We pass legislation to encourage whistle-blowing and at the same time a culture is promoted which portrays whistle-blowing about any intellectual matters as usually an act of pathological spite. In a world perilously muddled by expertise in its many forms, it seems a pity that there isn't a calmer climate of more precisely informed comment on evidence.
'What I feel about the authors of pretentious and misleading books is well expressed by the fact that Dante put the fraudulent below adulterers, gluttons, bad-tempered gits, suicides, sodomites, hypocrites, heretics and other riff-raff in his sketch of hell. But really I am of a sunny disposition and much prefer to write and talk about books I admire. I spend my working life doing so. Reviewing is what happens when criticism goes on holiday.' And with that, Griffiths returned to enjoy the summer weather of academe.
Adam Mars-Jones, novelist, critic (and second contender) feels that negative reviewing must not sound too dutiful. He thinks 'destructive criticism is legitimate as long as it isn't unmodulated'. Of Peck's review of Rick Moody he observes: 'There is something comic about someone taking 4,000 seething words to attack the bloated emptiness of contemporary culture.' Unlike Griffiths, who aims at objectivity in his criticism and prefers not to use what he describes as the 'pitiable resource' of his own feelings, Mars-Jones relaxedly admits to the subjectivity of literary taste. Criticism, he says, is 'not about authority. I am not paid to be right. I am paid to make a case.'
It is essential that critics should retain an energy about their work, some excitement and expectation. Mars-Jones remembers how, at film screenings, critic Alexander Walker used to give 'a little acidulated sigh as he sat down as if to ask: how will my intelligence be insulted this week?'
Philip Hensher (third nominee), novelist, columnist and critic, may be found in Believer magazine (published in the US and edited by Dave Eggers's wife, Vendela Vida) in a column entitled 'Snarkwatch', which names and shames reviewers. Hensher has been described in the column as 'the nastiest snark this side of the water' and ticked off for describing Tracey Emin as 'too stupid' to produce meaningful art.
But Hensher is a 'snark' with standards. 'I try not to review a book by anyone if they've ever given me a bad review,' he says, 'and would be less likely to review one if its author had given me any kind of review. It isn't fair to let people think that there may be more complicated motives behind your review than would ever, in my case, exist.' He finds it 'as infuriating to get a rave review as a return-of-favour as to get a hatchet job from someone with a reason to dislike you personally'.
He believes: 'It is deeply improper to speculate on an author's personality or private life.' He was outraged by a review of his short stories in which the reviewer explained that he needed to have experienced 'more misery'. And the reviews of Martin Amis's novel have shocked him, too: 'They have really been about him. I think that is disgraceful and on the increase.'
In his autobiography, Experience, Amis berates himself for wielding the hatchet as a young man. But critical hatchets are seldom lethal. Keats was devastated when critics of Endymion described him as a 'piss-a-bed' but he went on writing. Byron said he did not think 'the mind, that fiery particle/ could be snuffed out by an article'. But Sarah Kane was depressed by the panning of her first play, Blasted, and although critics were not responsible for her suicide, there was much critical remorse in the wake of it.
Writers can become obsessed by bad reviews. I saw Jonathan Raban remonstrate with Sebastian Faulks about a negative review the latter had written. Raban's opening remark was: 'I have nightmares about you.'
Perhaps it would be best if critics and their subjects never met. Mars-Jones recalls travelling on a number 19 bus and seeing Anita Brookner travelling alongside him. He had just reviewed one of her novels. She was sitting there 'in kid gloves, her fists tight'. To her, he was invisible. He wondered how it might be were he to tap her on the shoulder, introducing himself as the critic whose review in no way resembled her gloves. He had described her novel as like 'taking an ice-cold bubble bath'.
Readers divide into those who enjoy criticism that heaves its subject into theatre and operates without anaesthetic and those who don't. Critics split between those who find writing negatively easiest and those who don't. I told the axeman that I find negative criticism a chore to write - I'm bored by work I have not enjoyed and find it hard to persevere with it. And I seldom find negative reviews a pleasure to read, either. Worse even than what I call 'professional enthusiasm' (the gush of PR) are pieces written with contempt. The pleasure evident in demolition work is alien and unsavoury, too.
Novelist and critic Ali Smith agrees (she is certainly not eligible for the Order of the Axe). She deplores the way that criticism has become 'personality-driven' and would like a return to the days when critics wrote about ideas and put work in context.
Hermione Lee, an English don at New College, Oxford, is a generous, well-informed critic who thinks we have 'a culture of attack in which people make their name by ferocious reviewing'. She doesn't altogether disapprove. Like Smith, she does not care for personality pieces and does not want her own reviews to be 'about me'. But she thinks it is good to have 'a young Turk like Dale Peck toppling LLLs [living literary legends]'. She admits that writing negatively can be like having a good 'meat meal' - a steak, she volunteers. But she noted that it tends to be a young man's thing. Or, at least, a young thing. She wrote her harshest reviews in her twenties. Now she is more reluctant to 'throw five years of work away in 500 words'. She prefers to 'tune in' to an author rather than have a 'stand-off'. She wonders whether there is a gender divide. Certainly, her image of what a good review should be is inadvertently feminine - the opposite of a hatchet. Reviewing, she says, sho! uld be 'transparent, like a veil you can see through'.
Hatchet men in the States, Peck included, have more influence than they do here. American theatre critics have the power to shut down shows. This is in marked contrast to our situation, where some work is critic-proof. Take the Rod Stewart musical Tonight's the Night. The critics detest it but it will still be a hit. Simon Edge, on the Express, had his piece pulled because it was insufficiently positive. It was rewritten by a secretary on the desk. How is that for respecting a critic?
It is often said that critics should not dare to criticise unless they are creative themselves. But Peck's criticism is, it seems, warped by his ambition as a novelist. And Hensher maintains that being a novelist can distort your take on other novelists. Meanwhile, Michael Billington argues that there is nothing second-rate about being a critic - and that it is better to be a first-rate critic (not that he is flattering himself, he adds) than being a 'rotten playwright'.
Billington was not among the four critics who got the chance to try their hand at writing plays last week at the Soho Theatre. Dominic Cavendish, Rachel Halliburton, Jeremy Kingston and Patrick Marmion each wrote a 10-minute play (during a one-day workshop) and the results were directed by Abigail Morris and performed in front of an audience. The plays turned out to be disturbingly (depending upon your point of view) competent. The critics revealed - with the exception of Jeremy Kingston (whose play was gently horticultural) - violent imaginations.
Rachel Halliburton was relieved that it was not a 'shaming session'. Critics, she suggests, tend to be perceived as 'artistic eunuchs'. But not one of them felt the experience would feed their criticism, or that they would become kinder as a result of it. At the end of the evening, one of the actors offered them his review. It was the last word in deflation: 'Darlings, you were wonderful,' he said.
They were all, as Marmion put it, 'up for pillorying' for a reason: they believe critics are neither visible or answerable enough in this country and, to prove it, Cavendish has launched a combative new website (www.theatrevoice.com) where critics can, at last, be criticised.
Dale Peck's problem is that he is not being criticised enough. What We Lost is just out in the States and, he confided, 'nobody is writing about it. My three novels were extensively reviewed. People may be afraid. Or maybe they are not interested, think I have fallen off the map. Or perhaps it is payback time.'
In fact, the book has had one review, by Andrew O'Hagan in the New York Times, which Peck describes as 'the most condescending, homophobic thing I have ever read. It suggests that the book is all about masculinity and points out that because I am gay I will never have children. Dislike the actual book, but don't make comments about my own life!'
He sounds, suddenly, like a little boy. And he tells me a story. When he was a student, he wrote a book review of Saul Bellow's Herzog. 'I had just come out and was acutely sensitive. I identified 17 references to homosexuals, all of them negative and stereotypical.' It was his first hatchet job. And what did his tutor say? 'She said, "Dale, you are an amazing critic. Write about the things you love."' He adds: 'And I want to tell her, 15 years later, that I have finally learnt this lesson.'
Who are the critics' critics?
Mark Lawson, broadcaster and critic
Adam Mars-Jones is the best critic around. I think critics need values and standards but shouldn't be unshakeable. They should recognise a good work by someone they don't respect and a bad work by someone they do.
Norman Lebrecht, arts columnist
We lost two of the best this year, Alexander Walker and Harold Schoenberg, the music critic of the New York Times. They were paragons of critical independence, stubborn-mindedness and above all curiosity.
Michael Billington, theatre critic
Kenneth Tynan was the role model for my generation of critics. He set the standard with impeccable writing. Film critic Pauline Kael always struck me as the most knowledgeable voice of her generation.
Philip French, film critic
The critic who worked during my lifetime that I most admire is Edmund Wilson, arguably the greatest man of letters of the twentieth century. I read every word Pauline Kael wrote for the New Yorker, enjoying disagreeing with her and often being driven mad by her.
Charles Shaar Murray, music critic
The three people in my field I admire are Greil Marcus, Jon Savage and the late Ian Macdonald. Each one had the capacity to make me reassess something about which I already had an opinion.
Jim Shelley, television critic
Apart from Nancy Banks-Smith, I don't really read any TV critics. The only TV critic who ever makes me think 'I wish I'd thought of that' is A.A. Gill - so for that reason alone I deliberately never read him.
· Interviews by Akin Omuju
· Hatchet Jobs will be published in May by the New Press, £14.95