Who Killed the Literary Critic?

Salon’s Laura Miller and Louis Bayard have one of the more balanced conversations about the decline of literary criticism I’ve read in a while. Their conversation was prompted by Ronan McDonald’s new book, with the apocalyptic title now required of a book about the decline of books, The Death of the Critic. McDonald is a lecturer in English and American studies at the University of Reading, and like all academics, he sees the university as the source of and solution to all the world’s problems. Specifically, he blames the decline of literary criticism on cultural studies, which McDonald, like scores of conservatives before him, denounces as a peripheral, elitist practice that is nevertheless eating away at the core of Western values.

Miller and Bayard shrug off McDonald’s central thesis, implying that McDonald is as every bit as out of touch with critical practice in the public sphere as the Spivak-reading multi-cultiis. Miller and Bayard disagree on the impact of bloggers on the decline of public sphere literary criticism. Bayard admits he gets a lot of sound literary criticism for free from bloggers, while Miller blames the larger shifts in the media landscape. In either case, McDonald ignores these two developments.  Miller and Bayard also blame the decline of literary criticism on the decline of the American novel since its mid-twentieth-century pinnacle. This line of argument sounds correct intuitively, but it also seems to be a generational phenomenon in which readers of a certain age remember the literary lions of their youth.

Miller and Bayard gush about the late Northrop Frye–a worthy subject of admiration–but express divided opinions about James Wood, perhaps the most prominent literary critic working today inside or outside the academy. Miller says that Wood "has a well-formed, if rather austere aesthetic but he seems to be the only one who actually adheres in it. Of all the people I’ve met who admire Wood’s criticism I’ve yet to encounter anyone who actually subscribes to his fairly restrictive standards or taste. They like his writing and seem to feel braced by his rigor, but at the end of the day, they go home with Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith instead." Bayard is more enthusiastic about Wood, grouping him with those critics who, as far as Bayard is concerned, "can misinterpret and misevaluate to their heart’s delight as long as they make the words dance." 

Interestingly, Bayard has hit upon one of the criticisms leveled against the post-structuralists (we can include cultural studies as a breed of post-structuralism): that critics make the same claim to aesthetic value as the literary works to which they’re supposed to be subordinate. Roland Barthes is a far more elegant and intelligent writer than any number of celebrated novelists working today. 

Miller and Bayard agree that good criticism needs good literature, but it works the other way around, too. In fact, history shows that independent artists–artists who didn’t have to depend on a patron–arose in conjunction with the independent critic. Except for a few historically anomalous periods like the mid to late nineteenth century, both writers and critics lived a perilous economic existence on the margins of popular culture. Take, for instance, Matthew Arnold, among the most eminent of Victorians. It’s hard to imagine Arnold as a blogger (what would he call it? "Musings from Dover Beach"?), but he probably wouldn’t have any other outlet today. No book review editor today would hand over column inches to a school inspector.


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