November 20, 2008

Posner on the "Decline of Literary Criticism"

In the most recent issue of Philosophy and Literature, Richard Posner reviews Ronan McDonald's The Death of the Critic (discussed previously here):
The problem with “criticism conceived as magistrate”—the problem that McDonald not only does not solve, but does not acknowledge—is that there are no objective criteria of aesthetic distinction. The reason is that there is nothing that all great works of literature have in common but lesser works of literature do not. When critics propose criteria that they think will distinguish the great from the non-great, they end up narrowing the canon of great literature in arbitrary ways, as T. S. Eliot attempted to do with Milton and Shelley. There is no need to develop a litmus test for great literature. Critics can point to the features of literary works that they like or dislike without assuming the authority to tell people what they should read. And Croce was right: you don’t need evaluative critics in order to have a “canon” of great literature. The canon evolves in Darwinian fashion; writers compete, and the works that are best adapted to the cultural environment flourish.

I fear that McDonald has succumbed to the cliché that the enemy of my enemy is my friend: the cultural studies crowd is against evaluative criticism, so McDonald is for it, provided it is objective—but he does not show how literary criticism can be objective. But the problem is not that modern-day literary criticism is not evaluative; it is that literary criticism aimed at increasing the readership of great literature has been displaced by literary theory, on the one hand, and by literary scholarship for literary scholars only . . . on the other hand.
Though I might take issue with some of Posner's specific points, I agree with him that "the dearth of evaluative criticism" is not what accounts for the diminished significance of literary criticism. He concludes that "If there were less pretentious literary theory and no evaluative criticism, but more readable literary criticism in the style of Cleanth Brooks or F. R. Leavis, the literary culture would be in a lot better shape than it is." I've been reading a fair number of books that attempt to offer "readable literary criticism"; it's not that such books aren't out there, but perhaps that often they aren't often as intellectually challenging or rhetorically exhilirating as the examples Posner gives--often they seem to me to underestimate their intendend audience. The two books I'm reviewing on the 19th-century novel (Case & Shaw and Levine) are actually pretty good options of this kind, but they are overtly aimed at a student audience and so unlikely, I'm guessing, to reach very far out into the world. I admit, "readable literary criticism" with the effects Posner describes (work that "quickens" the reader's interest in reading literary works) is pretty much the kind I would like to write one day... "literary criticism that helps people understand and enjoy serious literature," which is why the kinds of debates he and McDonald are engaged in are of such interest to me.

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