FROM THE PULPIT

FRANCES WILSON

others better able, as Bloom puts it, ‘to exper ience aesthetic value’. Some people make better critics than other people, and some cr itics – like Bloom himself – are better critics than other critics. If aesthetic value is not to become as quaint and out-

F r om A r i s t o t l e

THE POPULAR IMAGE of the critic is no longer the dishevelled and much loved figure of Dr Johnson, half-blind and bent over, a t a t t e red coat heaped around his great carc a s s , a head swollen with reading, hands hanging at his sides like fallen nests. Nor is it any more Natasha and Cr ispin Cr itic, the smug, name-dropping, urban airheads sent up by Viz at the end of the twentieth century. The image of the critic today, if he or she is imagined at all, is of someone neither learned nor elite. Once revered and then despised, the contemporary critic is now regarded as redundant, and for an increasing number of critics this is literally the case.

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These are the best of times and the worst of times for literary criticism: the best of times because at least we still have Harold Bloom, who is always right, to tell us how and what to read; and the worst of times because Bloom says they are. What is destroying the tradition founded by Aristotle, Bloom laments in The Western Canon, is the nudging aside in university English departments of ‘aesthetic merit’ in order to make room for the battle of ideologies. The influx of ‘isms’ in the 1980s – what Bloom calls ‘The School of Resentment’ – resulted in novels, poems and plays no longer being valued for their originality or ‘strangeness’. What mattered instead was the colour, class, or gender of the writer. Literary greatness, which once earned its place in the canon through the work’s sheer audacity, drive and will to succeed, was now the preserve of political correctness and the concern of the university’s anti-discrimination laws.

The Western Canon, which appeared in 1994, is already out o f date. While t he ‘ d i s cour s e s ’ o f f eminism, Marxism, post-colonialism and post-modernism no longer dominate the humanities, aesthetic merit has all but disappeared from seminars and the only place in which the term ‘masterpiece’ is now to be found is on the gold-embossed cover of a new book. Outside the university, TV celebrities like Jeremy Clarkson review for the broadsheets and the fortunes of serious writers depend increasingly on the personal taste of Richard and Judy, Oprah Winfrey, Amazon reviewers, bloggers and e-zine editors. These are the days of ‘people power’: we are all critics now. The art of criticism has become, as Rónán McDonald put it in his 2007 polemic, The Death of the Critic, ‘like DIY, something anyone can do with minimal effort’.

The problem for me with the democratisation of literary criticism is that while people might be equal, books are not – and nor are people equal when it comes to books. Some people are better readers than others, and other people are better read; some are better writers and moded as a Sony Walkman, we need a return to fixed critical standards. More specifically, we need a return to evaluative cr iticism: this is what McDonald argues in The Death of the Critic and what Ray Ryan and Liam McIlvanney also insist upon in their recent edited collection of essays, The Good of the Novel (to which I’ve contributed). Evaluative cr iticism is concerned, Ryan says, with the ‘novelness of novels’, with ‘what the novel does and what kind of truth the novel tells’. In evaluative cr iticism, a conversation takes place between the critic and the text: is the writing good? If so, how good? If not, why not? Is this text, as Bloom puts it, ‘more than, less than, equal to’ another text? Bloom’s question should be carved above the door of English departments everywhere, and preserved as the screensaver of every literary editor.

In the closing paragraphs of The Death of the Critic, McDonald, himself an academic as well as a reviewer, suggests that if beauty is now thought to lie in the eye of the beholder rather than in the eye of the card-carrying cr itic, then cr iticism should at least be taught, along with creative writing, in universities. Being in possession of an opinion is not the same thing as having persuasive critical skills; critics, like other kinds of writers, need to find their voices, hone their styles, develop the arts of discr imination and discer nment. ‘The eloquence of writing, accuracy of expression, and owning of language should be a part of an education in English Literature,’ writes McDonald. Great critics such as Hazlitt, Woolf, Empson and T S Eliot, he writes:

have a style as distinctive as a signature. Of course it will take years to master the art of criticism, but students should none the less be encouraged to embark on the process of finding their individual creative voice, rather than always mastering received procedures and theories. What a thought: English departments can become critical academies where students learn an ancient and dying craft. They can compete to have the finest palates, the best taste, the most rigorous literary minds of the day. Now that university fees have tripled, many may wonder what exactly an education in English literature is worth: this is precisely the question a course in the art of criticism will aim to answer, by teaching the language of value. The critic can then earn back his place in our culture. Bring it on, Professor McDonald. ❑

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LITERARY REVIEW June 2011