Book Review: The Death of the Critic

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Reports of the Critic’s death have been greatly exaggerated

Contrary to what the title of Ronan McDonald’s new book may tell you, the critic is not dead. He’s alive and crowing on the Internet.
Today we can get all the criticism ever voiced in history, on the Web. We also get what rankles right now, real time, with many newspaper reviewers and bloggers posting their thoughts within moments of writing them down. The Gutenberg Project gives us copyright-free criticism at no charge, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Guardian, now The Atlantic, and many other sources provide free access to all that’s literary in their pages. Paid-for services give us the rest. We’re awash in criticism. Amazon and other book selling sites are crammed with reviews. New books of criticism seem to appear every week.

No, the critic is not dead. Thanks to blogs and burgeoning user content platforms, “the pullulation of commentary,” as McDonald puts it, everyone’s a critic. We can all now vent and emote. Push back, blow off, swoon and fawn in public cyberspace. People power dominates the age. And this is not a good thing, at least according to McDonald. It’s killing off a breed of professional, educated, capital ‘C’ Critic ‘essential to the survival of culture.’

Given the number of critical voices now squalling, it’s hardly surprising that few intelligent, informed ones are heard above the din, says McDonald. With evaluation now so dispersed, beauty, he argues, resides emphatically in the eye of the beholder. This troubling demise should not, he says, be celebrated. Critics as objective instructors, expert judges, provide a salutary service brushing against the grain of received wisdoms and tired forms. By bringing the shock of the new to wide audiences, they fight against conservatism and stagnation.

Regrettably, academic critics seem to have yielded the floor to bloggers and lay reviewers who, according to McDonald, share little more than personal reactions and subjective enthusiasms. Assuming the attitude that if anyone can be a critic, then surely there is no need for specialized professionals devoted to the task, academics have taken their non-evaluative teddy bears and marched back up the stairs of ivory towerdom.

What we are left with, says McDonald, is banality and uniformity decked out in the guise of democracy and improvement. A world where it is impossible for one art work to be meaningfully described as better than another.

The dominance of all encompassing Cultural Studies programs on campuses has, with its suspicion of the canon and its formulation, Barthes’s heralding the death of the author and birth of the reader, and the dissing of aesthetic judgment in general, killed academic presence on the literary scene, despite a public thirst for authoritative advice and top tens. As McDonald puts it, “If criticism forsakes evaluation, it also loses its connection with a wider public. This is why Cultural Studies, more than any other academic phenomenon, has led to the death of the critic. “If criticism is to be valued, says McDonald, if it is to reach a wide public, it needs to be evaluative.

Is the Critic dead? Look at any age and there are but a handful of great minds at work. During the past twenty years I can think of Harold Bloom and Frank Kermode, John Updike, and more recently, but increasingly, James Wood, possibly Anthony Lane. They may not be fashioning grand Northrop Frye-like systems, but they are alive, and do, I think meet Eliot’s criteria, of simply being intelligent. They’re also very well read, and good, entertaining writers who enjoy large audiences, are held in high regard, and for the most part, particularly in Bloom and Wood, express strong opinion.

Has the Internet killed the professional Critic with its loud, unaccountable, unaudited, unedited, unreliable scream? I don’t think so. Consumers of books, readers of novels, now have more interesting voices to listen to than ever before. Sure it takes time to aerate the vacuous, to find sustaining nourishment, but it’s fun. A large, accessible crowd of enthusiastic voices has to be healthy for criticism. I read some 15 to 20 literary blogs regularly. Though not a replacement, they provide just as much insight as traditional media. They rub against conventional wisdom. In fact, they subject me to more new voices than I’d ever hear without them. Far from a leveling, conservative and stagnating force, they roil with the known, overturn the unknown, and advocate the experimental.

Just as artists expand, improve, and evolve when surrounded by Critics, so too do Critics when surrounded by attentive, audible, responsive readers. The intelligent reader will find and appreciate the best criticism, just as the intelligent Critic will the find and champion the best art. Academics aren’t isolated in ivory, they now have direct access to the public. Instead of slogging through peer review processes and learned conferences, all they have to do is blog, like the rest of us.

Thanks to the Internet there is more informed, vital exchange taking place in literary criticism than ever before. So long as capital ‘C’ Critics, no matter where they come from, have something important to say, they will be heard, regardless of there being noise where there once was silence.

Chapter one of this book defines the conditions under which the Critic has supposedly died. I don’t agree with this supposition, but putting this aside, and turning to chapters two and three in this slim volume, you find a superb short summary of literary criticism, from the Greeks to the present. Here lies sustenance, the life of the book.

The history of criticism contains two conflicting impulses: a yearning for stable foundation against which to evaluate merit through time, and a need to accommodate personal valuation specific to period. From Aristotle and Plato, Plotinus and Longinus, Horace through to Dryden, Johnson and Pope, on to Kant and Hazlitt, Coleridge and Keats, Arnold and Ruskin, Pater and Wilde, Woolf and Eliot, Lawrence, Leavis, Frye, Trilling, and the French, not to mention Richards and Empson and Booth, McDonald traces literary criticism’s conflicted, objective-subjective dance, as it swings around the aesthetic and political, the beautiful and the good.

Here’s a description of Hazlitt’s criticism, typical of the exemplary fashion in which McDonald encapsulates:

“The task of criticism, for Hazlitt, is the communication of feelings…The critic becomes neither a judge nor a theorist, but a partisan and a persuader. He does not appeal to rules of modes theories or systems. His critical works are the record of his own personal response to what he has read and, as such, are remarkably vivid and excited testaments of appreciation…he can laud and condemn an author in a single paragraph. His prose bristles with passion and enthusiasm.”

McDonald’s summary helped me to clarify and position my own thoughts about criticism in a very useful way, serving too as a goad to future reading. Chronologically, following the various movements that have come and gone over the centuries, the book brings us to the 1960s which saw assumptions challenged in every field of study ‘root and branch.’ Structuralism and deconstruction pitted themselves against all illusion of totality, and held scant reverence for traditional concepts of aesthetic value. This, argues McDonald, spelled the beginning of the end of the great academic Critic. Art was increasingly treated as a system of codes that the Critic had to unscramble in order to reveal power structures within society. Literature was a mask to be stripped away, so as to make the operation of power visible. Aesthetic judgment was inherently class-based, designed to prop up the status quo.

Returning to the scene of the crime, McDonald castigates Cultural studies as being so concerned with everything, that it neutered itself, thereby concerning itself with nothing. Authors and directors were treated simply as ciphers for social norms and attitudes. Following this, as McDonald puts it, “If criticism forsakes evaluation, it also loses its connection with a wider public. This is why it is Cultural Studies, more than any other academic phenomenon, that has led to the death of the critic.”

If criticism is to be valued, says McDonald, if it is to reach a wide public, it needs to be evaluative. Literary criticism is a creative art, and should be recognized as such. Creative writing and fine arts classes tolerate individual expression, there needs to be space for it in university-taught critical writing too, he concludes, in addition to the mastering of received procedures and theories.

Good point, but I still think the death business is poorly argued, and exaggerated. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, The Death of the Critic engages and, as mentioned, is a very good primer on the history of criticism. As such, well worth the read.

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