Crace writes about the subject in relation to Ronan McDonald's new book The Death of the Critic. He wants critics to reach a wider market like scientists, philosophers and historians. A good way to do this would be to advertise the names of good but neglected critics but I don't see any here, which is a shame. McDonald is said to put criticism's decline down to three things: "the egocentrism of the 1980s", "the evidently self-serving practice of friends reviewing each others' books" and "the legacy of the Oedipal desire of the generation of critical theorists who learned at the feet of men like Leavis to kick aside the old values of their teachers." This is a bizarrely journalistic diagnosis by an academic! The fate of criticism follows the fate of art: so what about the legacy of Modernism and consumerist democracy? We might have very prominent novelists but, in terms of literary history, they produce hollow echoes that no amount of prize committees and fresh-faced pundits can insist are anything else. This too is a problem of criticism. It doesn't know how to prescribe without appearing elitist. My solution is to ignore it. Charging others with elitism is a form of self-hatred. As McDonald says, "the relativists are making judgments, even if they insist they are not". But he also says "In a world of celebrity critics and blogs, there has to be place for a more evaluative response of the academic". Indeed, welcome aboard. But what are these unnamed celebrity critics and blogs doing if it isn't evaluative?
However much one refutes relativism, it keeps coming back to haunt. That is its essential nature. Justin O'Connor's argument against it quoted by Crace reiterates Eliot, but then refutes itself with the example:
regardless of whether you like Ian McEwan's novels, you have to accept that his judgments on literature carry more weight, simply because he is a practitioner, engaging with writing every day.If this were true, he could say the same of Barbara Cartland. Perhaps even more so as she wrote more. I can't be sure if O'Connor's article goes onto say this, but it's how these writers engage that makes the difference. The reason both authors fail my test of criticism is because their fiction relies on an unchallenged narrative authority. Such is their lack of engagement. I'll be more taken with the words of a writer who cannot engage with writing or, equally, one who is aware that he engages too much! I'm encouraged that McDonald "would like to see more of an overlap between critical and creative writing" because that's precisely how I see literature going on.
It's revealing the serious criticism perceived here to be missing is defined as "academic" - something assumed to be above vulgarities like commerce and populism - yet is also routinely dismissed for its "wilful obscurantism". There are contradictory demands here. It seems there is a desire for unpretentious consumer guides that also offer a definitive, philosophically-engaged overview placing works within the literary canon. So O'Connor affording McEwan weight can be seen as a means of covering both bases: the author's popularity combining with the evident craft of his books. Instead I would say those who offer worthwhile criticism are those, regardless of profile, who address the pressing issue of authority. The worth being, in simple terms, its way of opening up art's complex relation to life. Saying "Mark Wallinger is crap" does the opposite. Let's all make that criticism die.