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Monday, March 17, 2008

The Death of the Critic?

John Mullan reviews Rónán McDonald's The Death of the Critic in the TLS:

Many will remember when the jewellery tycoon Gerald Ratner destroyed his company by publicly deriding its products (and therefore those who bought them). Over the past three decades, many English Literature academics have acted just like this, believes Rónán McDonald, and to similarly self-subverting effect. In the English departments of British universities, the professors have been strenuously denying the value of literature; these candidates for critical authority have waived their rights. It is no wonder, McDonald observes, that academic literary critics are no longer public critics, for if you abandon literary value then, in the eyes of those outside the campus boundaries, the value of the literary critic goes too.

The “Ratner moment” would probably not belong in a conventional study of the status of literary criticism. In McDonald’s deft polemic, The Death of the Critic, it seems just right; for there has been something comical about the eagerness of academics to scorn the notion that some books are better than others. The analogy is characteristic of McDonald’s tone, a kind of humorous exasperation that runs through his book. “The critic” has never had a good name, and McDonald admits that when he told people what his book was to be called, “they immediately assumed I was writing a celebration” of the critic’s demise. But this is a polemic in favour of the critic as a “knowledgeable arbiter”. In McDonald’s account, it is a reason for sharp regret that no one cares any more about “the critic”, that no one outside universities reads books of literary criticism. We need expert evaluative critics. In its fresh and energetic opening chapter, The Death of the Critic shows how adventure and experiment in literature benefit from the existence of such critics. McDonald draws a nice example from a rich harvest of scornful remarks about critics by dramatists: the exchange of insults between Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, which ends with Estragon’s unanswerable “Crritic!”. Vladimir “wilts, vanquished” specifies Beckett’s stage direction; but, as McDonald points out, Waiting for Godot owed much of its success to critics. First Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson writing in newspapers, and later a series of high-profile academic critics, helped create the play’s reputation. The public was tutored by the critics. Other such examples are not hard to find, from the sponsoring of difficult modernist works by critics like Edmund Wilson and R. P. Blackmur, to the “discovery” of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Ronald Bryden.

Nowadays, there are more critical responses than ever, but critical authority has been devolved from the experts. McDonald surveys the rise of blogs and readers’ reviews, of television and newspaper polls and reading groups, under the heading “We Are All Critics Now”. He argues that the demise of critical expertise brings not a liberating democracy of taste, but conservatism and repetition. “The death of the critic” leads not to the sometimes vaunted “empowerment” of the reader, but to “a dearth of choice”. It is hardly a surprise to find him taking issue with John Carey’s anti-elitist What Good Are the Arts? (2005), with its argument that one person’s aesthetic judgement cannot be better or worse than another’s, making taste an entirely individual matter. McDonald proposes that cultural value judgements, while not objective, are shared, communal, consensual and therefore open to agreement as well as dispute. But the critics who could help us to reach shared evaluations have opted out. The distance between Ivory Tower and Grub Street has never been greater. While other academic disciplines have seen the rise of the professional popularizer of art, music and film, literary expertise has sealed itself off in the academy. McDonald believes that the main reason for the gulf between academic and non-academic criticism is “the turn from evaluative and aesthetic concerns in the university humanities’ departments”. He does not bemoan the influence of the Richard and Judy Book Club or the internet; he blames his fellow academics.

This has been long brewing. The Death of the Critic takes us on a rapid historical tour of attitudes to the value of literature, from Plato and Aristotle, through the leading critics in English of the past five centuries. (McDonald allows himself a digression into the Kantian theory of the “disinterestedness” of aesthetic judgement, with which he clearly has much sympathy.) His concluding survey of the academic literary criticism of the twentieth century is hardly novel; it is a story that has been told before, by Chris Baldick and Patrick Parrinder among others, but it gives McDonald the chance to show that there were good reasons for the status of its leading figures, such as T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, Lionel Trilling and the New Critics, and he invites us to find insights rather than delusions. “These critics are still paraded before each generation of university students as ideologically befuddled, or reactionary bogeymen.” To our loss, he believes.

McDonald himself does not exactly have heroes and villains. His estimates of the influence of particular critics certainly involve value judgements, but these are often surprising and engaging. He relishes Northrop Frye’s critical eloquence, though he charges him with helping to split academic criticism away from higher journalistic criticism. By contrast, F. R. Leavis, whose austere narrowness McDonald clearly finds unsympathetic, is praised for “spilling the energies of academic criticism out into a much wider arena”. McDonald has a case to make, but does not put all his evidence into making it. Even where he regrets the influence of Raymond Williams in stripping aesthetic value from the arts, he cannot help admiring his commitment as a public intellectual.

In his final chapter, McDonald gives his highly condensed account of the influence of structuralism and post-structuralism on the academic critic. Yet it is not the heady obscurity of literary theory that he blames for “killing off” the critic. The culprit, as he sees it, is Cultural Studies, which requires that any cultural artefact be evaluated politically rather than aesthetically (aesthetics being revealed to be covert politics). Cultural studies may have been anti-elitist, refusing distinctions between high and low, proper and popular, but it doomed the academic to irrelevance outside the academy. “If criticism forsakes evaluation, it also loses its connections with a wider public.” He is a tolerant enemy to anti-evaluative criticism. Reviewing the rise of Cultural Studies, he even concedes that it might for a while have been salutary to have “an amnesty on the idea of objective quality”. Neglected works and unheard voices have been recovered. Even though he dislikes Cultural Studies, McDonald relishes much that we would call “popular culture”, and clearly believes that cinema, television and pop music deserve good critics too.

The virtue of this book is that, while it is a strong protest against what has been a prevailing climate in English departments, it is neither blimpish nor complacent.
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