Who Killed Literature AND Criticism? Cultural Studies! (A British Guy Said So)

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About two weeks ago, I posted something on What Literary Critics Actually Do, saying I'd follow up on the topic because I had more to say. I actually have said more; I wrote a couple more blog entries; I just haven't gotten around to posting them.

But turns out there's no real need to explain what it is I as a literary critic do, because I have followed the author (which I also sort of am, in a non-Foucauldian sense), and died.

That's right, the literary critic is dead. And who killed her? Cultural studies, that evil creation of second-rate thinkers and writers tired of being considered second-rate! This according to some British academic named Ronan McDonald. Though, according to a discussion on Salon, bloggers have to be blamed as well, because their democratic impulse, their arrogant assumption that their preferences in literature should matter enough to them to express them from time to time, have helped keep her dead. Oh yeah, I've also been told a time or two that Oprah helped as well, with her book club, getting publishers to paste a sticker on some books and not others, so that the sticker-bearing books are seen as special when they might not really be. Naughty cultural studies! Naughty bloggers! Naughty, naughty Oprah!

I admit, I haven't read the book announcing all this, The Death of the Critic by Ronan McDonald. All I've read is the blurb on Amazon, which reads

McDonald argues that crowing blog-based citizen opinionistas, triumphant over shrinking print media coverage of books are simply kicking a dead horse; the lit critic, it seems, was killed already by the an out-of-control sense of cultural relativism, which has over the 20th century wormed its way into literature programs, engendering artistic and aesthetic relativism. McDonald contends that the idea of artistic expression's equanimity, and the subsequent equanimity of opinion regarding that expression, has marginalized the important and difficult work of honestly evaluating artistic worth. Emphasizing literature, his specialty, McDonald illustrates how trendy efforts to make art more scientific, more academic or more cultural ultimately undermine its role as art, making it more difficult (if not impossible) to consider with the language of art. McDonald illustrates how specific movements-including romanticism, fin-de-siecle and radical aesthetic individualism-have obscured and in some cases removed entirely those traditional standards of value. A daring, but fitting, comparison between aesthetics and ethics shows how standards may be relative but are never irrelevant; McDonald's cogent, largely convincing attempt to pin the critic's murder on relativism is sure to raise eyebrows among academics, though it doesn't do much to instill hope of the critic's resurrection.

here's what I want to say:

the language of art is dead because of fundamentalist religions like Mormonism, because of the uniform way the west in general and western religion in particular treats texts, including evocative and symbolic texts. As Karen Armstrong writes in The Spiral Staircase,

Sacred texts cannot be perused like a holy encyclopedia, for clear information about the divine. This is not the language of everyday speech or of logical, discursive prose.


theology is--or should be--a species of poetry, which read quickly or encountered in a hubbub of noise makes no sense. You have to open yourself to a poem with a quiet, receptive mind, in the same way as you might listen to a difficult piece of music.... You have to give it your full attention, wait patiently upon it, and make an empty space for it in your mind. And finally the work declares itself to you, steals deeply into the interstices of your being, line by line, note by note, phrase by phase, until it becomes part of you forever. Like the words of a poem, a religious idea, myth, or doctrine points beyond itself to truths that are elusive, that resist words and conceptualization. If you seize upon a poem and try to extort its meaning before you are ready, it remains opaque.

(I sorta don't believe this bit about fundamentalist religions killing the language of art, by the way; and I sorta do. It's possible, I think, but I can't really say definitively that that's what's to blame, more so than anything else. I threw it in part just to show that you can blame anything for a particular situation.)

I mentioned in my last post on this topic that I read every single word of The Canterbury Tales in middle English as an undergrad. What I didn't mention is that the class in which I did so was one of the most boring of my life. It was all explication; it was all, "Here's what this phrase means; here's what Chaucer was trying to show in this passage; here's why this is so brilliant." Oh, god, it was painful, and so fucking encyclopedic! I swore then and there that I would never adopt that mode of teaching. When I compared it to the method of teaching in most of my other courses, well, I could see a huge difference in how exciting and meaningful the conversations were.

I have always trusted that my students will "get" why the great works I'm teaching them are really great works, at least some of the time. They don't always, and I admit that sometimes that upsets me, but I have told them it doesn't matter whether or not they like a text, that they're free to hate things and to express that hatred in class discussion (though not in their papers--more on that later) and I try to stand by that. I also try to give them that empty space Armstrong mentions, in which the text can declare itself to them, whereas so often in these classes where the whole point is to convince you that something incredibly boring and irrelevant like The Faerie Queen was great art 400 years ago and should still be recognized as great art now, are just fucking coercive. In a class I taught a few years ago, there was a moment, after we all finished Lolita, when we talked together about why it was such a magnificent work of art. I was happy that my students came to that opinion, and came to it on their own. Getting them to understand that was NOT my primary objective.

Anyway. There are other reasons why I'm pissed about this. I didn't come across McDonald's book on my own; I found it via a review on Salon, in the form of a conversation between two book critics. (Book critics are people who help others decide whether or not to buy a book, and they do this by writing about it in popular magazines or newspapers. This as opposed to literary critics, people who study literature in some systemic way, with an area of specialized expertise. I won't deny there are people who are both, but it's not always the case.)

The tagline for the review reads, "In the age of blogging, great critics appear to be on life support. Salon's book reviewers [Louis Bayard and Laura Miller] discuss snobbery, how to make criticism fun and the need for cultural gatekeepers."

It's in the form of a Socractic dialogue (somewhat reminiscent of the great critical essays of Oscar Wilde--The Decay of Lying, The Critic as Artist--but not nearly as insightful, witty or wise), and starts out with this from LB:

Book reviews are closing shop or drastically scaling back inventory. Film critics at newspapers all over America are getting tossed on their ears. TV reviewers are heard no more in the land. All the indicators suggest that America's critics are becoming an increasingly endangered species.

Or maybe something a little more than endangered, judging from the title that's just come across our desks: "The Death of the Critic." Ronan McDonald, the author, is a lecturer in English and American studies at Britain's University of Reading, and he's particularly exercised by what he sees as the loss of the "public critic," someone with "the authority to shape public taste." It's only in the final chapter that the mystery behind the critic's disappearance is solved. The culprit is none other than ... cultural studies! (With a healthy assist from poststructuralism.) By treating literature as an impersonal text from which any manner of political meaning can be wrung, cultural studies professors have robbed criticism of its proper evaluative function -- the right to say this is good, this isn't, and here's why.

it goes on to this:

Laura Miller: I suppose it's only natural that McDonald, being an academic himself, would blame the academy. He believes that substantive scholarly criticism acts as a foundation for serious non-scholarly criticism -- such as reviews and essays in newspapers and magazines -- lending credibility to the idea that criticism (specifically, literary criticism) is a job for trained experts. When academia falls down on the job of, as you put it, saying what's good and what's not, then all criticism starts to look arbitrary and dispensable. We don't have celebrated "public critics" now because critics don't care about the public, not because the public doesn't care about critics. What do you think: Is criticism responsible for its own demise?

Bayard: I think critics are just the canary in this particular coal mine. It's no accident that McDonald locates the "Golden Age" of criticism at the midpoint of the 20th century, which was also the apogee of the modern novel, particularly the American novel. Novels -- and novelists -- mattered then in a way they simply don't today. (William Styron's posthumous essay collection is a potent reminder. The man got invited to the Kennedy White House on the strength of one novel!) Even if you think critics are parasites, you have to acknowledge they can only survive when their host organisms thrive. In this regard, I think McDonald is right: If we want to bring the critic back to life, we first have to resuscitate the novelist.

And frankly, there's precious little that gets me more hot and bothered than talk like that, the idea that the only literary art form that REALLY matters is the novel. Yes, there are plenty of great novels that I REALLY love, but they are not the be-all and end-all of literature. After all, they've only been around for 400 years (Don Quixote is usually considered the first, and it was published in 1605), and oh, the effort it took to validate them as "respectable" literature and "high" art! For a long time they were this third-rate literary form because (gasp!) they were really popular among women! In fact, even women could write them! They didn't take that much actual knowledge, you see; you could produce them out of your imagination!

Then the discussion descends into this circle jerk (albeit a small one) in which LM and LB talk about the critics whose prose they love, though they never read the books these people mention: critics, who "can misinterpret and misevaluate to their heart's delight as long as they make the words dance," and then they both agree that it's good to read Northrop Frye.

And then they mention this bit from McDonald, and add their own interpretation:

McDonald mentions that one of academia's last havens for evaluative criticism has been the creative-writing class, and he suggests that universities should offer more in the way of "creative criticism" classes, teaching the craft of interpreting other people's works. All the same, I'm skeptical this would reverse the current state of affairs. People will only value literary criticism to the extent they value literature. Unless we can arrest the decline of reading -- and even Harry Potter hasn't managed that wizard's trick -- then criticism will be swept away in the same mud slide.

What the fuck?

First of all, haven' t they read the stuff about how reading is actually at an all time high? Book clubs flourish. Book stores make huge profits.

Secondly, I teach creative writing courses. I teach criticism courses. I have taught--and produced, and published--creative cross-genre criticism. So I think they're full of shit and don't know what they're talking about. And to substantiate that, I should probably post some of the other things I've written for this series, and I'll do that soon.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on May 22, 2008 9:28 AM.

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