Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Some thoughts on the death of criticism

"It's tough being a serious critic in these relativist times" says John Crace in his article Is criticism dying, or is that just your view? (link via TEV). "These days, all opinions and prejudices are equally valid. So if you think [Mark] Wallinger is crap, then he is crap." But this is why serious criticism remains a challenge. Rather than dying, criticism begins with relativism. Criticism is as inevitable as breathing, wrote one of the last century's greatest critics in 1922. Serious criticism is breathing only at higher altitude.

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.


  1. I agree with you, all this relativist crap is boring a thin tunnel of stupid into my head. I'm tired of critics being either too nasty (petty, catty, baseless in criticism) or too afraid to offend. I'm tired of books being reviewed like movies, thumbs up or down. Substance! Give me substance!

  2. Could you expand on how you would have writers and their critics "address the pressing issue of authority?"

  3. Well, that Vila-Matas novel is a good example.

  4. Is it worth scrolling back to Hegel who argued that art would gradually become displaced by philosophy as we, as it were, grew up intellectually unlike those Greeks who had to take important truths in intuitively through their art. I see this as the beginning of a road that leads to conceptual art, a progress from the sensual, tactile, visual (visceral?) enjoyment towards abstract contemplation of the idea or Geist. The critic in this scheme becomes less a servant of art, an explicator and evaluator, than a fellow-creator, whose intellectual function is equal to that of the artist. Critics who argue that authority comes from being a creator are in the rearguard of this movement. The "space" identified by this blog I take it to be one in which both kinds of mind meet and explore things together, ultimately abolishing the distinction. I am warming to the idea having been a bit of an artist-knows-best fundamentalist hitherto.

  5. Nicholas,

    I started writing a reply here but it kept growing, and thought it rather too long for a comment, so posted it on my blog, HERE

  6. Quality of writing is all that counts for me. I don't care who the critic is, how they are classified, where they publish or what they've read. If they produce writing of quality then it shows and it will have my engagement.

  7. Anonymous10:38 pm


    "Quality of writing" is an all embracing standard. How does that differ from saying that what you look for is "good" writing, as opposed to bad?

    Rather begs the question.

    If you mean, style, prose style ("good sentences" so-called) how does one judge quality of prose style without considering what that style is meant to serve?

    Any piece of writing involves ordering of its particular elements--that is, thinking, aesthetic thought. Not the kind of thinking philosophers aspire too; rather, thinking that demands its own mode of evaluation. I find it impossible to conceive how one might judge the "quality of writing" without dealing with the ideas that give that writing its form, that in fact, are its raison d'etre, the very thing the writing, in a sense, replaces--which, having found form in the work, vanishes.

    The best critical writing, as I see it, is shaped by that vanished "idea" of which the work stands, through the form it takes, as witness. It's not a matter of "unmasking," something hidden. There is nothing hidden. What was there, is not hiding, it is gone. It has become something else--the novel, the painting, the performance... but by entering into the ordering principles and ideas of the work, into what "happens" in the experience of reading--and from that, writing a response that leaves a trace of that vanished idea--but in a different mode, a different cognitive register.

  8. Anonymous5:44 pm

    The point about McEwan and Cartland reminded me of something C.S. Lewis said. One might say that McEwan would be a better critic because he's a better writer, but how do we know, or how do we decide?

    Lewis was responding to the notion that only good practitioners could be good critics, and pointed out that in order to determine whether someone was a good practitioner, we would have to ask a second practitioner if he considered the first one good. (Assuming we are not practitioners, but readers.) But our inability to know if the first one was good would extend to the second or third, as well.

  9. Why isn't the practice of reading sufficient?

  10. Anonymous9:10 pm

    I'm guessing the question is directed at me, or in response to what I wrote.

    I don't think anyone said it isn't sufficient. But people usually want more, for better or worse.

    Was it in response to "Assuming we are not practitioners, but readers"?

    I meant that if we were practitioners, and not just readers, according to the theory Lewis argues against, we would be able to decide for ourselves what was good and who was fit to judge. That's all. His point is that a critic can be, and often is, just a reader, not a writer.



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