May 23, 2008

The Death of the Critic, Reprise

Bill Benzon kindly pointed out this Salon piece to me:
Louis Bayard: The signs are ominous, Laura. Book reviews are closing shop or drastically scaling back inventory. Film critics at newspapers all over America are getting tossed on their ears. TV reviewers are heard no more in the land. All the indicators suggest that America's critics are becoming an increasingly endangered species.

Or maybe something a little more than endangered, judging from the title that's just come across our desks: "The Death of the Critic." Ronan McDonald, the author, is a lecturer in English and American studies at Britain's University of Reading, and he's particularly exercised by what he sees as the loss of the "public critic," someone with "the authority to shape public taste." It's only in the final chapter that the mystery behind the critic's disappearance is solved. The culprit is none other than ... cultural studies! (With a healthy assist from poststructuralism.) By treating literature as an impersonal text from which any manner of political meaning can be wrung, cultural studies professors have robbed criticism of its proper evaluative function -- the right to say this is good, this isn't, and here's why.

So, Laura, it seems that, if we aren't quite dead, we critics are on something like life support.

Laura Miller: I suppose it's only natural that McDonald, being an academic himself, would blame the academy. He believes that substantive scholarly criticism acts as a foundation for serious non-scholarly criticism -- such as reviews and essays in newspapers and magazines -- lending credibility to the idea that criticism (specifically, literary criticism) is a job for trained experts. When academia falls down on the job of, as you put it, saying what's good and what's not, then all criticism starts to look arbitrary and dispensable. We don't have celebrated "public critics" now because critics don't care about the public, not because the public doesn't care about critics. What do you think: Is criticism responsible for its own demise?

I didn't see any great revelations in their discussion, but there are some good moments. Here's one I liked:

Bayard: I like that phrase "go home with" because, when I think about the critics I love the most, they're not necessarily the ones I agree with, they're the ones I'd like to date. I argue with them, but when they're gone, their music is still bopping around in my brain. Many years ago, Susan Sontag, in "Against Interpretation," argued for "an erotics of art." Is it time now for an erotics of criticism? Instead of bemoaning the decline of literature, should we be doing a better job of showing people what they're missing: the excitement of unexpected insights, the thrill of new voices, the sex of ideas? That sounds like a lot more fun than figuring out which fiefdom we're going to defend in the Theory Wars. (I've a hunch Ronan McDonald would be on our side.)

Miller: You're right! Why pillory theory, when even the people who used to espouse it are saying it's dead? Let's talk about what makes for a good critic. I often think that there are two kinds: the ones whose taste I find simpatico -- the ones I come to for recommendations on what to read -- and the ones who are themselves terrific writers, irrespective of what they recommend. Sometimes there's an overlap, but not often.

There are critics, like Wood, that I go out of my way to read, although I have no intention of ever opening the books they tout. That's indicative of an additional aspect to criticism besides evaluation (which McDonald wants to bring back to academic criticism) and interpretation (that is, elucidating the work and its many meanings, which we could use more of in journalistic criticism). It's the literary worth of the criticism in and of itself, and the chance to see a sophisticated reader at work.

Yes: "the chance to see a sophisticated reader at work"--that sums up a lot of the pleasure I too take in reading James Wood. And they also offer a couple of unusually reasonable remarks on the usual straw targets, bloggers and English professors:

Bayard: Yeah, the blogosphere is the elephant in the room that McDonald never really gets round to discussing, but to my mind, it's a far more pressing issue for criticism than theory is. Why pay a professional critic to evaluate something when you have a gazillion volunteer evaluators ready to fire off at any given moment? . . . I myself don't have any particular training or qualifications to be a reviewer, other than my own experience as a reader and writer, so I feel silly arguing that someone else isn't qualified to deliver an opinion. And believe it or not, I've learned things from Amazon reviews, from letters pages, from literary blogs, from all sorts of non-traditional outlets. The quality of writing is certainly variable, but then so is the quality of traditional journalism. [that "believe it or not" seems gratuitous --why should it be hard to believe?]

Miller: . . . It hardly matters whether or not an English professor actually likes to read novels and poetry, does it? Books are the salt mine, and the academics are the miners. If anything, literary enthusiasm can be a detriment if your job is to prosecute books for their ideological crimes. When even English professors won't stand up for literature, is it any wonder it's failing? [Sigh!]

But in reply, Bayard: Well, it's been a while since I was in college, but I do remember professors who loved English literature every bit as much as I do, so I don't want to tar the whole profession out of hand. [Whew! Because I'm pretty sure some other people would be right there with feathers to finish the job!]
I wrote up some thoughts of my own about McDonald's book here. McDonald and I share an interest in reviving the role of the "public critic," but I can't quite get on board with his emphasis on evaluation as the necessary method. I give some reasons for that here, in response to an inquiry from Nigel Beale--and, more facetiously, here!

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