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The death of the literary critic

I’ve just finished Rónán McDonald’s little book, The Death of the Critic (London: Continuum, 2007), the broad point of which is to decry the diminution of the literary critical role in society that was formerly occupied by well trained readers like Calvin Trilling, Matthew Arnold, F.R. Leavis, and writers who also produced criticism, like T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag.  Criticism has been democratized by the blogosphere, mostly in ways McDonald sees as insidious; as he puts it, We Are All Critics Now (4).   And academic attention to literature, he argues, has been dominated by cultural studies perspectives that mostly insist on reading novels as symptoms of capitalism or patriarchy or racism, and in ways that have made criticism less linguistically accessible to a wider readership.  To those who might counter that criticism is more ubiquitous than ever, and who might immediately think of the New York and London book review publications and others, McDonald replies, but “how many books of literary criticism have made a substantial public impression in the last twenty years?”  “Academics in other subjects with a gift for popularizing their subject, like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking, Simon Schama and A.C. Grayling, command large non-academic audiences and enjoy high media profiles.  However, there are very few literary critics who take on this role for English” (3).

McDonald sidesteps a lot of the traps characterizing other work critiquing academic literary studies.  He is not defending a return to a Great Books Canon or to the pure celebration of high culture.  His review of the historical debates over the value of criticism make clear that he grasps the complexities in the longer tradition.  He is not hostile to Theory, but rather sees it as having made important contributions that now can be superceded not because theory should be rejected but because its central insights have been mainly and rightly accepted.  McDonald sees the value in the proliferation of critical methods (genre, psychoanalytic, Marxist, formalist, semiotic, New Historicist) even as he argues that this expansion was mainly driven by the demands of 20th-century university culture to devise rigorous quasi-scientific perspectives.  He does not by and large (a notable exception is at pgs. 127-129) disparage cultural studies either substantively or by painting with too broad a brush (in fact, he spends some time defending Raymond Williams as doing the very kind of theoretically informed but also interesting work he would like to see more of).  And he is not finally a doomsayer about the culture; in fact the book closes with a sense of optimism that the attention to literary aesthetics he desires is making a sort of comeback.

Having said all this, McDonald still takes a pretty hard line, especially with respect to the culture war debates of the last half century, which in his view too readily dispatched even the merits of a long tradition of debate over the rightful role of criticism.  He thinks Matthew Arnold has been cartooned, at the expense of his insights about the way an intelligent culture of criticism can produce more interesting art.  Arnold’s defense of critical “disinterestedness,” he notes, has been almost absurdly distorted. The quote most often used to beat Arnold over the head (that criticism’s role is “to make the best that has been thought and known in the world everywhere,” a sentiment that reads like pure colonialism) is usually cited without its introduction, which says that true culture “does not try to reach down to the level of inferior classes but rather seeks to do away with classes; to make the best…”).  The correction obviously doesn’t let Arnold off the hook, but read as against the grain of the broader prejudices of his time, his perspective elaborates a more compelling vision for criticism and the capacity of art to undo elitism than a reading that sees him as simply advocating snobbery.

The case against the blogs and the kind of “thumbs up” criticism that characterize so much newspaper book reviewing and the Oprah Book Club is for McDonald situated in his recognition that the institutional practice of criticism arose under peculiar circumstances that are now being transformed.  As capitalism developed (and here he is following Habermas’ claims about the short-lived emergence of a bourgeois public sphere) and industrialization created new middle classes with leisure time and an interest in cultural elevation, a demand was created for sophisticated taste makers.  There is a tendency today to forget how radically democratic these impulses were:  “this early development was an intellectual movement from below, a way of appropriating and redistributing cultural authority from the aristocracy and land-owning classes” (54).

What is today at risk, in McDonald’s perspective, is the essential role critics can play in challenging popular preconceptions and making the world safe for difficult artworks as they defend or enact idiosyncratic perspectives and nudge or argue audiences toward controversial but potentially essential ways of seeing.  This role requires critics who are educated to the possibilities of literary and artistic generation and who are willing to make and defend evaluative judgments about what art is worthwhile or worthless.  His attack on the bloggers and academic critics is that they either insist on reading new work through existing prejudices or refuse to make evaluative claims at all, not wanting to seem elitist or read as disparaging popular culture.  Critical practice has thus been transformed from offering acts of thoughtful judgment into offering acts of clever insight, where the question implicitly answered is not so much what makes this work aesthetically rich and worth your time? and more did you notice such-and-such about this novel/TV show/film?  Skills of observation are thus elevated over skills of interpretation, and the outcomes of critical engagement are more likely to center on how interesting (or not) a text is, at the expense of how engagement with it might better educate its audience.  Taste has trumped judgment, and the demand for books is more than ever driven by the marketing of a dwindling number of books and the ever-tightening circle of I saw Ann Coulter on Fox and she was nasty and funny and so I think I’ll buy her nasty and funny new book.

McDonald does not do enough to specify exactly what sort of criticism he seeks.  He argues for criticism that makes aesthetic judgments and dismisses those who simply connect novels to the broader culture, but he seems to celebrate Virginia Woolf for doing the very thing he dislikes (in fairness to McDonald, he tries to defend Woolf as striking a sensitive balance between these tendencies).  He argues that criticism that takes an evaluative stand will attract readers, but the argument slides around a bit:  at pg. 130, where this claim is articulated, he starts by noting that boring academic writing turns readers off.  Then he says “those critics who examined popular culture alert to its pleasures found the wider public more ready to listen to what they had to say,” though that seems to imply that audiences are best found when one cheerleads (a position I take as antithetical to his larger purposes).  And then he shifts into a case for critics who write “about the value and delights of art” (note how evaluative judgment, which so far did not play in his perspective on attracting readers, is now slipped back in).  But it isn’t clear how critics who defend judgments are supposed to attract audiences in a world where enthusiastic reviews are likely to be more contagious than briefs for the defense.

But even if the cure is underspecified, I found it hard not to be persuaded by McDonald’s broader diagnosis, and the case for more fully reconnecting academic and popular cultures.


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