Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Death of the Critic?

In yet another round of the print-vs-blog debate, Salon features a discussion of the state of book critics, including Ronan McDonald's views on the subject in the new book The Death of the Critic. Salon's discussion between Louis Bayard and Laura Miller, paralleling McDonald's book jacket, opens with a photograph of a man face down at his desk, surrounded by piles of books, a knife in his back. Who dealt this blow? Was it bloggers, or was it another contemporary bugaboo, cultural studies?

McDonald argues that it is the latter. As Bayard, summarizing McDonald, puts it, "By treating literature as an impersonal text from which any manner of political meaning can be wrung, cultural studies professors have robbed criticism of its proper evaluative function -- the right to say this is good, this isn't, and here's why." But the trashing of the idea of a canon "has created a kind of inverse reaction: People are now hungering to be told what's good."

Miller and Bayard take up the question of whether the "democratization" of criticism -- on blogs and elsewhere -- has downgraded it. For Miller, there is "no real causal connection between the blogosphere and the withering away of newspaper criticism, actually. It has more to do with the economics of newspaper publishing and management and editors feeling that criticism is disposable because it's not reporting, which they see as a newspaper's core product."

Ultimately Miller and Bayard take up whether the real problem is "the death of the reader," and whether academics are, in part, at fault in that. But with Publishers Weekly reporting that book sales in the United States have risen in 2008, those dead readers seem to be buying a lot of books!

The Death of the Critic is also reviewed in the Boston Globe and the Times Literary Supplement.