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The Death of the Critic: Responses (3): How should academics attribute Merit?


One final response to Ronan McDonald’s
The Death of the Critic from Dalhousie University Professor Rohan Maitzen (host of the excellent Novel Readings blog) who wonders how, given McDonald’s prescription for more evaluation, academics are supposed to answer the common reader’s question: "Is this book … worth my attention and my time?"

"If criticism forsakes evaluation, it also loses its connections with a wider public" (134): this loss and its roots in the history of criticism are the book’s major focus, though McDonald also considers other phenomena that have contributed to the diminished relevance of academic critics, particularly the democratization (or relativization) of criticism, or attitudes towards critical expertise, enabled by new media such as blogs or Amazon-style customer reviews. His focus on evaluation is reiterated in his prescriptive closing section, which calls for a renewed aestheticism and concludes,

"Perhaps the critic is not dead, but simply sidelined and slumbering. The first step in reviving him or her is to bring the idea of artistic merit back to the heart of academic criticism. ‘Judgment’ is the first meaning of kritos. If criticism is to be valued, if it is to reach a wide public, it needs to be evaluative." (149)

There seem to be some internal inconsistencies in McDonald’s analysis of criticism’s decline in public significance. His chief grievance with the movements he groups together as ‘cultural studies’ is that they treat literature instrumentally, as a means to other (usually political) ends. On his own account, though, most major critical movements have done some version of this, from promoting or sustaining civil society to "fill[ing] the breach left in religion’s absence" (69), and in fact the whole idea of ‘evaluation’ always has to be grounded in a set of extrinsic standards which (again on McDonald’s own account) have almost never been strictly aesthetic (if such a thing is even possible). Though McDonald believes that emphasizing aestheticism will bring about a "rapprochement between academic and non-academic criticism," and thus, apparently, between critics and general readers, aesthetic evaluation is surely
as problematic as any other kind.

Further, McDonald actually praises Virginia Woolf precisely for "enrich[ing] aesthetic formalism with political and gender consciousness" (86)–so Paterian obsession with the immediacy of the aesthetic encounter is presumably not his ideal. So what is it, exactly, that he means to invoke with his mantra of ‘evaluation’? He objects to the leveling effects of considering every cultural artifact equally worthy of critical attention ("To be concerned with everything is, ultimately, to be concerned with nothing" [127]), but he resists the notion of an unchanging canon ("Who would not welcome the rediscovery of unjustly forgotten women writers, or the efforts to hear the voices of the marginalized and disempowered . . . ?" [21]; "the criteria for admission [to the 'canon'] needed to be renovated . . . ‘quality’ is not an eternal and unchanging facility, but rather one that mutates along with the cultural evolution of a society" [23]).

Once you’ve acknowledged the ‘problematics’ of literary judgment, how then are you supposed to answer what he proposes is the common reader’s key question ("Is this book … worth my attention and my time?")? For what it’s worth, I think most academic critics would in fact be quite happy to answer that question about any book, but first we would all want to develop the question further (along the lines I laid out here, for instance).

Still, I share McDonald’s concern about the isolation of academic expertise from today’s reading culture more generally…I think, too, that he is right to be looking at questions of judgment and how they are understood and articulated as one of the flashpoints for misunderstanding or resentment between academics and other readers. I just don’t see how his prescription to be more evaluative is an adequate response, unless (at the minimum) it is accompanied by a commitment to showing why the question "Is it of any merit?" requires substantial complication before a worthwhile answer is possible. The responsibility here is not all ours: ideally, readers would want, not to be dictated to, but to be engaged in debate worthy of the books they are considering.

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2 Responses to “The Death of the Critic: Responses (3): How should academics attribute Merit?”

  1. Andrew MacDonald Says:

    Readers do want "to be engaged in debate worthy of the books they are considering," as Nigel has it. The popularity of book clubs and, where I live in Canada, book talk as a subject on CBC radio reveals this hunger. Speaking as a literate non-academic, and an infrequent fiction reader, I like quality criticism for precisely the same reasons I like quality books: for the subtlety, wit, and intelligent perspective in it. (If you make me laugh at least once, I’ll likely be back.)  I want critics to shine a bright light of intelligence on the work, whether the piece in question is schlock or worthy of elevation to the canon. I’ll decide for myself whether I trust the critic depending on whether her smarts on the page prove her worthy of my trust. But presupposing objective standards of merit, or being ruled by them, reduces the richness of art to a story about good vs bad, when, like our children, it’s much more than that.Critics should show us and not tell us, just as writers are admonished to do. We can make up our own minds if we wish to read.  

  2. Rohan Maitzen Says:

    Andrew, I agree with your point about what (serious) readers want; that’s really one of the reasons I hesitate about pressuring critics to be more evaluative, as if their task is to tell other people what’s good and what’s bad, rather than to engage them as richly as possible in reading. Just for the record, the phrase you quote is as I put it, not as Nigel did. Thanks to Nigel for cross-posting these comments from my own review of McDonald’s book.  These exchanges are good demonstrations of the kinds of critical conversations blogging makes possible. 

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