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The Death of the Critic: Responses (2) Rónán McDonald on the impact of blogging on literary criticism


Rónán McDonald responds to my response to his response to my review of his book (any future responders’ responses will be appear in the comments below, as will those of anyone who may have happened to have swallowed a fly)

I emphatically agree that academic standing is not required to be good critic. The history of criticism would be horribly denuded if it was. But I do think that the critic (or ‘Critic’) needs cultural authority and standing for his or her gifts to have optimum effect. I would go along with the criteria you list – the critic should be intelligent, well-read, articulate, eloquent and so on. But if critics are effectively to coax, argue, educate and edify, there cannot be a limitless number. The voices of those commentators who have the qualities you cite must be heard above those who do not. I’m not sure the Internet has yet found the mechanism to distinguish the good from the bad. Whatever the drawbacks and failings of the printed word, newspaper critics generally had training and experience in their chosen field. And were subject to editorial scrutiny.

You suggest that the ‘intelligence’ of the reader will find the best bloggers, just as the intelligent blogger will discriminate the best art and literature. But I wonder if ‘intelligence’ is always innate or prior to cultural encounter in the way this implies. I think sometimes we need someone we respect to urge us to stop, look, listen and give something a second chance. I certainly do. Intelligence and discernment in the reader/viewer is developed, in part, by good critical explication and evaluation. To think of it as being innate, something one is born with, seems to me to be much more ‘elitist’ than the idea that critics perform an important role as arbiters of taste. But I think there’s something characteristically hieratic, even disdainful, about the Eliot remark to which you allude. (‘There is no method except to be very intelligent’). Like his ‘tradition’ and his organic society, it seems criticism should not be disturbed by anything as upstart or dubiously Gallic as a theory or methodology.

I agree that bloggers can champion the new and experimental and that the internet is an extraordinarily broad church. I think the point you make about reviewers being under greater scrutiny is a very important one. The
quote from page 12 of my book was not aimed against the quality of blogging – though I can see why the context raised your hackles a bit – but rather against the inevitably curtailed cultural penetration and reach of
individual blogs at the moment (because of their size and number). This discussion might become a little obscure if we keep mentioning pages in a book that many of your readers will not have read, but a little further, on
p. 15-16, my position is a bit clearer. I’m discussing Marjorie Perloff’s notion that the solution to the shrinking newspaper coverage of poetry lies on the internet. My point is not that the internet is too amateurish or
restrictive, but rather that it is too atomised. Lovers of experimental poetry (or anime, installation art, body piercing) can go to the relevant site, but they are already won over to the form or the cause. Public critics need a wide public sphere in which to work, if they are to convince and cajole those not yet initiated into the new and unfamiliar.

But I think we are largely in agreement. I agree that the internet has shot a bolt of energy through criticism and, if I was writing my book now, I think I’d probably make more of that. Not least of its roles, as you say, is its interaction with print criticism, which seems to me a very healthy symbiosis.

The target of my book was never the Internet or the bloggers. It was rather conceived as a riposte to John Carey’s 2005 book ‘What Good are the Arts?’ (some print reviewers have picked up on the Carey angle, but not many bloggers have), a defence of literary value against relativist dismissals, and a call for evaluative criticism in the humanities. The book advocates a porousness between university criticism and the world of letters outside. But closeness of both to the blogosphere, and the many interesting voices emerging from it, might be to the benefit of all three.

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One Response to “The Death of the Critic: Responses (2) Rónán McDonald on the impact of blogging on literary criticism”

  1. Nigel Beale Says:

    We are most definitely in agreement when it comes to the defence of literary value against relativist dismissals. As I say in an article on the development of ‘good’ taste, to be published next week in Guerilla magazine,

    “…without agreed upon aesthetic measurement, War and Peace cannot objectively be valued higher on a literary scale than, say, Peyton Place. But even if beauty of language, profundity of intellectual discussion and emotional connection are accepted as legitimate measures and Tolstoy is deemed the better, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to value him over, say, Dostoevsky or Stendhal.

    Similarly, lacking a yardstick we cannot say that your experience of Picasso’s Guernica is more profound than mine is of Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World. Who’s to judge one experience more valuable than the next? Only where evaluative systems are agreed upon, where talk is heard, can stimulating conversation and enlightening insight occur.”

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