“Ruined by the Academics”: More on the Decline of Criticism

At The Guardian, John Sutherland adds to the chorus of lamentations about the death of literary criticism:

The UK has always had the world’s liveliest and most expansive lit-crit pages. A new book over here can hope for reviews in a dozen or more places in its first couple of weeks. It’s not just the (former) broadsheets, the nationals, the weeklies and the “heavies”. For my money, some of the fizziest reviews in London will be found in David Sexton’s Monday Evening Standard (always something pleasantly malicious), Private Eye’s “Bookworm” (where an anonymous DJ Taylor wields his assassin’s hatchet) and the Camden New Journal. (You don’t believe me? Pick up a copy next time you’re in NW1. It’s free.)

But this traditionally vibrant sector, with its myriad outlets, is on the wane. Terminally, it would seem. Pages are falling away, like leaves in autumn. They used, for example, to call the literary pages in the New Statesman “the back half”. Now it’s “the back sixth (in a good week)”. Why is lit-crit – as a main item in our cultural diet – going down the tubes?

Among the “hypothetical answers” he proposes to his own question, we get the familiar one, “blame the blogs” (“The most plausible explanation for hard-print lit-crit melting faster than the Arctic icecaps is flickering on the screen in front of you. . . .As literary pages have withered, literary blogs have bloomed”). And the “Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English LIterature at University College London”* also blames “academics”–but not, as is more usual, because of jargon-bloated prose, incessant politicization, or refusal of evaluation. Sutherland argues, rather, that academics were discovered by literary editors to be cheap sources of labour, “that would write for pennies, had oodles of spare time and could spell”:

At the TLS party a couple of weeks ago, I overheard this paper’s senior political correspondent, Michael White, in conversation with the TLS editor, Peter Stothard. Having recently done a couple of pieces for Stothard’s journal, White asked – in evident perplexity – “Can anyone actually live on reviewing?” No, Stothard conceded. Staff journalists can, but not freelance reviewers. For pointy-headed profs, it doesn’t matter. Many would sell their children into slavery to pay for the privilege of a lead piece in, say, the Saturday Guardian Review. Unfortunately, excellent value (ie dirt cheap) as they are, academic reviewers come with heavy baggage. They can be dull. Really dull.

How unfair–one of my children, at most, at least for the Guardian Review. (For the TLS, on the other hand . . .) And my head’s not really that pointy. And I’m not dull. Well, rarely. OK, define “dull.” Does going on and on about Trollope qualify?

Meanwhile, Chris Routledge at The Reader Online points out a recent Guardian feature that once again pits bloggers against critics:

It appears that consumers no longer feel the need to obtain their opinions from on high: the authority of the critic, derived from their paid position on a newspaper, is diminished. Opinion has been democratised. . . .The advent of the net has been described as a revolution. If so, one of its most heated battles is being fought over the right to claim expertise. In the US the ancien régime, in this case the salaried critic, appears to be in retreat. The question is what will happen here? We need only look at television criticism, a once-noble calling pursued for this newspaper by both Julian Barnes and Clive James, for clues. In May the Daily Telegraph decided it no longer needed a daily TV review. Regular TV reviews have also gone at the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and London’s Evening Standard. Could the same happen to other arts?

The British critical tradition is long and rich and deep: from the pamphleteering of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in the early 18th century, through the literary criticism of Oscar Wilde in the 19th to Graham Greene’s film reviews and Kenneth Tynan’s first-night theatre notices in the 20th, we have never been short of confident people to tell us what is good and what is not and why.

‘We have a wonderful tradition of criticism in this country,’ says Brian Sewell, art critic of the Evening Standard for nearly 25 years, ‘and it would be a tragedy if we lost it. The onlooker sees most. We are the skilled onlookers.’

Such discussions have been going on for a while now; I think Chris is entirely right when he says,

I can’t help feeling that this is a non-argument. Either ‘old media’ will ‘get’ the Internet or it won’t (as it happens I think The Guardian/Observer does). It’s more likely to end up being about what the words are printed on than it is about who wrote them and why.

The problem is not one of form; it’s one of filtering. It takes time, patience, diligence, and discernment to distinguish among the vast number of blogs offering criticism and commentary of one kind or another; the challenge is that there’s no established review process to create evaluative hierarchies or provide qualitative guidance (no, Google Blog Search does not count). But, as many have pointed out, it’s not as if there aren’t trashy print publications too, some of which sell millions of copies. Sure, it is discouraging to read ignorant nonsense parading around as serious criticism, but the best response seems to me to encourage what Sewell, above, calls “skilled onlookers” to show the value of their expertise, not to encourage a seige mentality. And, of course, many print publications are in the blogging game now, including The New York Times and the TLS. It was never an either/or option.

*from the author blurb on How to Read a Novel

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