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The Death of the Critic. Responses (1): Blogging and Meritocracy

 In response to Ronan McDonald’s response to my review of The Death of the Critic:

I agree with the main premise of your book: that avoidance of the evaluative has resulted in a demise in academia’s relevance in the larger public conversation about literature. My particular concern has to do with what you say on page 12.

Vital artistic innovations surely do benefit from a healthy critical culture, ‘one reliant on experts and specialists.’ The question though is, who are these experts, what qualifications are required in order to be one, and how healthy is our culture. I have posited elsewhere that in order to be a good critic one has to be very intelligent, very well read, and a good, entertaining writer able to express strong opinion with sound arguments. Academic standing really has nothing to do with it, other than the fact that if you don’t have any, it’s damned difficult to get state funding for any research you may wish to undertake.

You ask, would critics who introduced the often difficult Modernist literary works of the early 20th century – Wilson, Ellmann, Blackmur – have much impact in the current critical climate. And follow this directly with " If not, could we rely on the bloggers to bring the shock of the new to a wide audience?

There are two points here. Yes, I do think we could rely on some bloggers to champion the new and experimental. Bloggers do not all collectively slouch together in one direction, they run off in every which way, voicing a huge range of opinion, much higher and lower on the scale than those chanted by the chorus of capital C critics. But no, because audiences now are more fragmented than ever, I’m not sure they would reach such a large audience. It still requires the circulation of The New Yorker, The New York Times, the TLS or The Atlantic to reach big numbers of eyeballs. The point is though, that reviewers with these publications are under greater scrutiny than ever before. And this, I think, is conducive to healthy literary criticism. As is the fact that many of these critics do pay attention to blogs. 

You then say "The conviction that educated taste is an elitist ruse, that one opinion is as good as another, and that we should take our lead for our cultural life solely from people like us might seem like a powerful instance of people power." (I suppose because it again is placed right next to the blogger question, by implication you are saying that this is the overwhelming opinion in the blogosphere) A situation you say that will result in a ‘dangerous attenuation of taste and conservatism of judgment.

As I say in my review, far from a leveling, conservative and stagnating force, [blogs] don’t take their lead from ‘people like us,’ they roil around with the known, the unknown, and the experimental. Just as artists improve and evolve when surrounded by Critics, so too do Critics when surrounded by attentive, audible, responsive reader/bloggers. The intelligent reader will find and appreciate the best criticism, just as the intelligent Critic will the find and champion the best art.

It doesn’t take much to launch a blog: a computer, a cable outlet, an opinion. As such they embody the democratic ideal. You however say that democracy is not good for criticism. That  meritocracy is best. I gather you are talking about the enormous number of bloggers who now bog the blogosphere. There are definitely a lot of them around, but despite this, I’d say that intelligent audiences will always seek out intelligent writing and thinking. Democracy and technology now ensure that many voices will be heard. The meritorious will clearly not always be the most popular, but I do think they will stand out and be read, despite all the noise; regardless of all the dross and banality that may rumble in the background.

Frankly, other than via the marketplace, in this cauldron of competing qualities, I don’t see any other way to foster good public criticism. If academics possess the qualities inherent in a good critic, then they will be heard. We live in a democracy which I do think rewards merit. Despite the numbers, blogs do provide an exciting avenue along which new voices may travel, and good criticism may be found, celebrated and exposed. This avenue is open to all.  Your critique of democracy I gather has to do with a fear that the sheer mass of mediocrity that blogs produce threatens to drown out the more educated, sophisticated voices that need to be heard in order to protect and encourage innovation. I’d suggest that when it comes to criticism at least, democracy although granting voice to all, does reward merit. Given this, I wonder what you mean by a ‘meritocracy’, and, assuming it is different from what we currently have, how such a system could be put in place?

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One Response to “The Death of the Critic. Responses (1): Blogging and Meritocracy”

  1. Mark Thwaite Says:

    Interesting stuff Nigel. I was going to leave a comment here but it got too long and involved so I’ve responded over on ReadySteadyBook ( http://tinyurl.com/5yk3ng ) … Just to say here, I’d most definitely recommend McDonald’s book — which is very readable and very good on the history of Eng.Lit.

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