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Book Review

"Death" deals the critic a cautionary diagnosis

(cover image by ed marshall)
Email|Print| Text size + By John Freeman
March 5, 2008

The Death of the Critic
By Rónán McDonald
Continuum, 160 pp., $21.95

The year 2007 was a rough one for reading - a study by the National Education Association concluded it's in decline - and it was also a tough time for those who like to read about reading. Around the country, some newspapers winnowed their literary coverage, along with dance and music criticism, foreign reporting, anything but pop culture and religion.

There were many obvious reasons for these changes. Newspaper business models had changed. The Internet made more criticism available. In a capitalist society, the "market" had decided such coverage didn't matter so much.

But the thorniest reasons for this cutback, the ones that deal with internal fractures within criticism itself, are just now beginning to be addressed. In his provocative, enormously informative new book, "The Death of the Critic," Rónán McDonald dives into this territory with both sleeves rolled up. He traces the current suspicion of the critic's role to debates that have raged since Plato. Forget about bloggers, cut-rate publishers, and amazon.com (the usual suspects); the critic's killer, McDonald argues, is criticism itself.

The argument typically leveled at this point goes something like this: Most criticism is so poorly written, it's no wonder people move on. Or: The advent of critical theory at universities has become so specialized that it is irrelevant. McDonald acknowledges both arguments but persuasively argues that at heart they are essentially ridiculous, and lumping all critical theory into the unreadable, irrelevant camp is unfair.

Rather than take on the jargon of today's academic theory, though, McDonald is content to describe historical trends, in particular the movement opposing the use of value judgments. What is a critic besides an arbiter of value, though? At the same time as this attack on judgment was being made on criticism, McDonald says democratizing forces within our culture - from the upheavals of the 1960s to changes in our economy, to, yes, the rise of the Internet - have opened the doors to many new voices, many of them young, who now have much more say about the culture we live in.

This has refracted back onto academia. Cultural studies programs have arisen to challenge once (but not always) traditional disciplines like English. In this environment, McDonald argues, voice is more appealing (since the number-one goal is to maintain your attention) than expertise.

Whatever you think of this 21st-century world, McDonald's assessment poses serious questions that beg for specific application. He often chooses to stay out of the battles of our day, but I'm more than happy to zero in on a recent example of the perils of our current reviewing climate, in which voice is privileged over expertise. When Peter Gay's "Modernism" was published last fall, it received almost no major reviews from specialists. Many of its critics were good writers, but where were the critics who possessed the depth of knowledge to judge Gay, one of our most eminent cultural historians, against himself?

This may sound like insider baseball, but given the fact that reviews of books often reach audiences far wider than the books themselves, especially with poetry, it's important to think about. When McDonald argues that criticism needs to be more evaluative, he isn't talking thumbs up or down. He means criticism that takes seriously the role of engaging with the issues and aesthetics of the work at hand.

Ultimately, McDonald says this is possible. He believes - as do I - that criticism reflects the culture and mores from which it grows. In other words, things can change, if the culture reacts. So that eye-catching but perhaps overstated title is a bit of a misnomer. The critic isn't dead. In fact, the defibrillators that can bring him or her back are all around us, and you can find many of them in this smart, useful little book.

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle. He is writing a book on the tyranny of e-mail.

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