More on Professional vs. Public Criticism

Brian McCrae accepts the decline of literary criticism as a public activity as a trade-off for the benefits of professionalization. In contrast, others continue to believe that criticism (including that of professional academic literary scholars) can and should be relevant and accessible to non-specialists. In Uncommon Readers, Christopher Knight points to Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, and George Steiner as examples of critics who insisted “that the scholar find a way to engage the larger educated public in conversation” (8); because, as a result, they often worked outside the forms of academic criticism, “professionals have been loath to recognize their contributions” (12). In Double Agent: The Critic and Society, Morris Dickstein posits the alienation between professional critics and a non-academic readership as a central problem in the discipline: “the main task for criticism today is to recapture the public space occupied by the independent man or woman of letters not only between the wars but throughout the nineteenth century. The first step,” he continues, “would be to treat criticism as a major form of public discourse” (6), making the critic a “mediator between art and its audience” (7). In his turn, Dickstein points to Helen Vendler, John Bayley, and Christopher Ricks as academics who have bridged the gap between professional and amateur readers, particularly through their literary journalism. But need an academic critic have a broad public in mind, any more than a specialist in any other field has an obligation to popularize his or her work? Or, ought literary journalism or other critical contributions not made through the formal routes of academic publishing to be given professional weight? It seems to me at this point that one’s answers to questions like this will turn on one’s idea of literature, once, as Dickstein argues in his more recent book The Mirror in the Roadway, conceived of primarily as a kind of imaginative negotiation with or refraction of the real world–a view now, Dickstein points out, that is “completely out of fashion . . . except among ordinary readers” (1).

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