What's going on? Three things, to judge from their absence from Graff's history, that have never happened before. First, the number of students studying English literature appears to be in a steep, prolonged and apparently irreversible decline. In the past ten years, my department has gone from about 120 majors a year to about ninety a year. Fewer students mean fewer professors; during the same time, we've gone from about fifty-five full-time faculty positions to about forty-five. Student priorities are shifting to more "practical" majors like economics; university priorities are shifting to the sciences, which bring in a lot more money. In our new consumer-oriented model of higher education, schools compete for students, but so do departments within schools. The bleaker it looks for English departments, the more desperate they become to attract attention.
In other words, the profession's intellectual agenda is being set by teenagers. This is also unprecedented. However bitter the ideological battles Graff described, they were driven by the profession's internal dynamics, not by what our students wanted, or what they thought they wanted, or what we thought they thought they wanted. If grade schools behaved like this, every subject would be recess, and lunch would consist of chocolate cake.
Graff's critical movements were proud, militant insurgencies, out to transform the world. This year's Job List confirms the picture of a profession suffering from an epochal loss of confidence. It's not just the fear you can smell in the postings. It's the fact that no major theoretical school has emerged in the eighteen years since Judith Butler's Gender Trouble revolutionized gender studies. As Harvard professor Louis Menand said three years ago, our graduate students are writing the same dissertations, with the same tools, as they were in 1990. Nor has any major new star--a Butler, an Edward Said, a Harold Bloom--emerged since then to provide intellectual leadership, or even a sense of intellectual adventure. The job market's long-term depression has deepened the mood. Most professors I know discourage even their best students from going to graduate school; one actually refuses to talk to them about it. This is a profession that is losing its will to live.
Twenty years after Professing Literature, the "conflicts" still exist, but given the larger context in which they're taking place, they scarcely matter anymore. The real story of academic literary criticism today is that the profession is, however slowly, dying.
March 12, 2008 Literature's self-implosion
We need expert evaluative critics – but our professors keep denying the value of literature itself
Nowadays, there are more critical responses than ever, but critical authority has been devolved from the experts. McDonald surveys the rise of blogs and readers’ reviews, of television and newspaper polls and reading groups, under the heading “We Are All Critics Now”. He argues that the demise of critical expertise brings not a liberating democracy of taste, but conservatism and repetition. “The death of the critic” leads not to the sometimes vaunted “empowerment” of the reader, but to “a dearth of choice”. It is hardly a surprise to find him taking issue with John Carey’s anti-elitist What Good Are the Arts? (2005), with its argument that one person’s aesthetic judgement cannot be better or worse than another’s, making taste an entirely individual matter. McDonald proposes that cultural value judgements, while not objective, are shared, communal, consensual and therefore open to agreement as well as dispute. But the critics who could help us to reach shared evaluations have opted out. The distance between Ivory Tower and Grub Street has never been greater. While other academic disciplines have seen the rise of the professional popularizer of art, music and film, literary expertise has sealed itself off in the academy. McDonald believes that the main reason for the gulf between academic and non-academic criticism is “the turn from evaluative and aesthetic concerns in the university humanities’ departments”. He does not bemoan the influence of the Richard and Judy Book Club or the internet; he blames his fellow academics.
This has been long brewing. The Death of the Critic takes us on a rapid historical tour of attitudes to the value of literature, from Plato and Aristotle, through the leading critics in English of the past five centuries. (McDonald allows himself a digression into the Kantian theory of the “disinterestedness” of aesthetic judgement, with which he clearly has much sympathy.) His concluding survey of the academic literary criticism of the twentieth century is hardly novel; it is a story that has been told before, by Chris Baldick and Patrick Parrinder among others, but it gives McDonald the chance to show that there were good reasons for the status of its leading figures, such as T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, Lionel Trilling and the New Critics, and he invites us to find insights rather than delusions. “These critics are still paraded before each generation of university students as ideologically befuddled, or reactionary bogeymen.” To our loss, he believes.
McDonald himself does not exactly have heroes and villains. His estimates of the influence of particular critics certainly involve value judgements, but these are often surprising and engaging. He relishes Northrop Frye’s critical eloquence, though he charges him with helping to split academic criticism away from higher journalistic criticism. By contrast, F. R. Leavis, whose austere narrowness McDonald clearly finds unsympathetic, is praised for “spilling the energies of academic criticism out into a much wider arena”. McDonald has a case to make, but does not put all his evidence into making it. Even where he regrets the influence of Raymond Williams in stripping aesthetic value from the arts, he cannot help admiring his commitment as a public intellectual.
In his final chapter, McDonald gives his highly condensed account of the influence of structuralism and post-structuralism on the academic critic. Yet it is not the heady obscurity of literary theory that he blames for “killing off” the critic. The culprit, as he sees it, is Cultural Studies, which requires that any cultural artefact be evaluated politically rather than aesthetically (aesthetics being revealed to be covert politics). Cultural studies may have been anti-elitist, refusing distinctions between high and low, proper and popular, but it doomed the academic to irrelevance outside the academy. “If criticism forsakes evaluation, it also loses its connections with a wider public.” He is a tolerant enemy to anti-evaluative criticism. Reviewing the rise of Cultural Studies, he even concedes that it might for a while have been salutary to have “an amnesty on the idea of objective quality”. Neglected works and unheard voices have been recovered. Even though he dislikes Cultural Studies, McDonald relishes much that we would call “popular culture”, and clearly believes that cinema, television and pop music deserve good critics too.
The virtue of this book is that, while it is a strong protest against what has been a prevailing climate in English departments, it is neither blimpish nor complacent. The author’s reasonableness requires him to acknowledge, finally, that all is not woe. The last pages of the book contain a swirl of examples of a growing openness to “questions of value” in academic criticism. Here the force and wit of his polemic do falter a little. Looking to some better future, he places a strange faith in Creative Writing programmes in universities, because they treat literature “seriously as an end in itself . . . . Rapport between artist and critic can create energized contexts for artistic innovation and creativity”. Tellingly, he here lapses into the kind of critical prose he himself deplores. But if his concluding hopes are not quite convincing, his regrets have been expressed with irresistible clarity. John Mullan’s books include How Novels Work, 2006, and Anonymity: A secret history of English literature, 2008. He teaches English at University College London.