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Evaluative criticism

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Monday, Jun 9, 2008

Ronan McDonald’s recent book, The Death of the Critic, which argues that literary criticism should be evaluative so that it can reach a broad audience and therefore be relevant, has prompted some discussion at The Valve and Salon. Writes McDonald, in a passage excerpted by professor Rohan Maitzen here, “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.”


McDonald appears to be serious in arguing that the academic study of literature should focus on whether works are good or bad, inviting a return to the “warm bath” approach to pedagogy that invites us to luxuriate in the Great Works and congratulate one another on how perceptive we are in appreciating them. But who establishes the terms of correct aesthetic judgment? It seems like a will to power is all that’s required, and then the spread of one’s aesthetic tenets serves no greater function than oppressing the world with your particular tastes. And if it’s not simply egotism, usually a covert political agenda is being served—the way the New Criticism tended to denigrate political works in favor of sterile formalism, which guaranteed quietism in the humanities. McDonald argues that true criticism was destroyed by cultural studies and its political agendas, but passing judgment is a political act. What is so hard to understand about that? You can’t impose an aesthetic value system on the public without imposing at the same time an implied set of political views, usually conservative ones, since the very act of imposing your judgment on others is an elitist proposition. (Not surprisingly, McDonald doesn’t like the democratization of criticism—probably because he suspects democracy as a principle. What, all those rubes out there get to have their own opinion, and it should count in the social world we share?) An aesthetics is always political; otherwise it’s merely solipsistic.


Speaking of solipsism, McDonald’s concerns over the democratization of criticism prompts this blithe statement from Salon’s Louis Bayard:


The problem with arguing for cultural gatekeepers is that, if you’re a professional critic, you inevitably look self-serving—“Hey, that’s my job!”—and yes, elitist—“Don’t try this at home, guys.” I myself don’t have any particular training or qualifications to be a reviewer, other than my own experience as a reader and writer, so I feel silly arguing that someone else isn’t qualified to deliver an opinion. And believe it or not, I’ve learned things from Amazon reviews, from letters pages, from literary blogs, from all sorts of non-traditional outlets. The quality of writing is certainly variable, but then so is the quality of traditional journalism.


Believe it or not? Bayard’s point is well-taken but is undermined utterly by that condescending interjection. Oh, is the great Louis Bayard to deign to find himself informed by the great illiterate mass of monkeys pounding away at their naive Amazon reviews and noncommercial blogs? I’m left with a sense of the mammoth amount of entitlement that critics seem to feel by their appointment to their prominent perches, and if that sort of critic is dying, I’d be happy to shovel the dirt on the grave. You have to hope he was being ironic in a way that is not coming across—which itself is an index of the distrust between critics and readers (readers like me, anyway).


Maitzen’s conclusion seems pertinent to the question of that distrust:


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.


Criticism that prompts readers to become critics themselves in their own way would be healing the divide. That’s why the flowering of millions of critics on the internet should be heralded as success, not failure or death.
If critics—any critics, academic or otherwise—deserve our attention, it seems that should be a matter of their being interesting in their own right, producing something compelling from their interaction with some other work that makes us want to think and talk about it too. Mere evaluation seems the least interesting outcome of such an interaction. At best, it prompts tautological arguments about taste.


McDonald believes that “If criticism forsakes evaluation, it also loses its connections with a wider public,” but I’m not sure why that matters. Does criticism need to compete on the same turf as marketing, and should it really strive to become more like marketing (evalutive criticism of the most straightforward sort), because it happens to have an extremely wide public in our commercial society? McDonald apparently laments academic critics’ loss of public influence, but I’m not sure why they would deserve it; surely it’s better that critics are taking less of the attention away from the art they would, under McDonald’s system, be judging? Academic critics in general write repetitive and aggressively unreadable prose; this is because the mechanics of the profession demand it. (Academics must prove their mastery of a field through tedious recounting of previous scholarship, then they must prove a mastery of the field’s arcane lingo, which helps establish the discipline’s authority.) Were they to write in a more accessible fashion—for lay readers rather than their peers—they would be undermining the credibility of their field, th epresumption that special training is required to perform the sort of analysis in which they have become specialized. If we don’t think these specialized analyses are worth performing, better then to argue for the abolishment of literature departments, and turn literary analysis back over to the Virginia Woolfs of the world, the leisure-class dilettantes with the time and inclination to parse fictions.

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