McDonald, Rónán. The Death of the Critic. New York, NY: Continuum Books, 2007. 176 pp. 23.95 (cloth).

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The Death of the Critic is a concise and persuasive argument for the necessity of an engaged, evaluative criticism of literature, one in which critics address readers instead of each other. McDonald, a lecturer at the University of Reading in England, spends the first half of his book defending the value of criticism to the culture at large. Part of this involves sketching the development of modes and prevailing ideas of criticism from Aristotle’s Poetics through the end of the twentieth century when the notion of “criticism” came to be identified exclusively with the academy. Towards that end, McDonald has compiled a very useful overview of the individuals and movements that developed literary criticism into an increasingly subjective enterprise, culminating in the singular sensibilities of writers such as Virginia Woolf, William Empson, and Oscar Wilde. In the early twentieth century, as the discipline of English became a respectable academic subject, efforts were made to introduce or impose the same systems of support and proof that science relied upon as a way of making the study and assessment of literature measurable in the way that other fields of study were. Academic critics began to imitate the techniques of science, which in turn laid the groundwork for the crossover of structuralism from the realm of sociology to the study of literature. Over time, “criticism” came to be regarded as work carried out by academics, while “reviews” became the work of those who wrote for the popular press. McDonald argues that criticism should belong to neither camp: “It is because criticism has both an objective and a subjective quality, flitting between principle and prejudice, that it is in the land between the poles of scholarship and journalism, that it has often proven most fruitful” (79).

McDonald sees the proliferation of reviewing (in the British press) as a positive sign of a renewed level of interest in books, particularly the novel. About the Internet, however, he is less enthusiastic. Whether the blogosphere will contribute to the democratization of criticism or only to further atomization remains to be seen. In order for it to serve as a “land between the poles,” a great deal of development will have to take place on blogs and other book-related websites, but that is already well underway. Additionally, the still stubbornly pervasive notion that the Web is an inherently inferior platform, the realm of fans and ravers only, will have to be eradicated. In the United States, where newspapers and monthly magazines have been steadily reducing their coverage of books, even eliminating it entirely, there is simply no alternative. McDonald pays only glancing attention to the blogosphere, which makes it apparent that the (British) culture he is addressing is still qualitatively different than American culture, globalization notwithstanding. McDonald writes from a place where the opinions expressed in newspapers still have a significant impact on the arts, from a culture that is more cohesive in general, and is subject to less of the pressure of marketing and commercialization Americans have come to take for granted. The echoes of debates about high versus low culture are still significant in the United Kingdom, whereas the debates around and about the impact of identity politics are much more acute in the United States. How would we define the “shared cultural endeavor” in a culture as varied, as ungainly, as present-day America? How would we, why would we, revive or reinstitute the notion of “the canon”? Who needs a gatekeeper, who is inside and who is outside the gates? In the end, it’s impossible to imagine turning back the hands of time, muting the voices on the Web, to an age when public intellectuals really had an impact on the general reader. But that’s not what McDonald is after, as it turns out-his book is really addressed to fellow academics, even though he insists that literary criticism must not be sealed off in the academy, which has lately worked to devalue literature rather than to explore or celebrate it.

The final section of The Death of the Critic is devoted to the rise of cultural studies, which, McDonald asserts, elevates political judgments over aesthetic considerations and which, in its effort to include everything, is really about nothing in particular. The book narrows here, discussing the theory wars that have lately raged in the academy and have moved criticism further and further away from the notion of aesthetic value. McDonald suggests ways that a “new aestheticism” could be developed in English departments. He cites the rise of creative writing programs as a hopeful thing-an antidote to the philosophical systems employed by academic literary theorists. If and when creative writing programs induce students to read books, and write about them, then yes-but many such programs are focused on the illusory promises of literary careers, and the students read only each others’ work. Meanwhile, in the world outside the university, books are more available than ever, and writing about books proliferates. Does all of it qualify as criticism? Certainly not. But what McDonald calls “clusters of serious, evaluative criticism” are to be found in print (still) and, increasingly, online. An engagement with both issues and aesthetics is a working method that any serious reader and writer, professional or amateur, can take to heart. Above all, McDonald proposes critics need to devote their attention to the work at hand, rather than to their own process:

It is the universal aspirations of aesthetics that often draws the most ire from modern theorists. The attempt to define beauty in absolute or trans-cultural terms seems nefarious in the eyes of many modern commentators, schooled in the instability of language or the relativity of values. While [. . .] criticism often reflects on its own procedures and assumptions, and the development of criticism is closely connected to the growth of the philosophy of aesthetics, it is also the case that the finest critics have often been the least formulaic or systematic. (64)

The context of criticism is ever-changing. What the academy does percolates through our culture, of course, but mostly circulates within its own walls. The Web offers a place and a means for people to exchange ideas about books-reading and writing about them in brief or at length. One can hope that entirely new kinds of criticism will emerge from this more collective endeavor. Where and how notions of criticism inside and outside the university will intersect remains to be seen.
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JACQUELYN POPE is a writer and translator whose collection of poems, Watermark, is published by Marsh Hawk Press.