- The Decline of Literary Criticism
Rónán McDonald, a lecturer in literature at the University of Reading, has written a short, engaging book the theme of which is evident from the title: The Death of the Critic. Although there is plenty of both academic and journalistic writing about literature, less and less is well described by the term "literary criticism." The literary critics of the first two-thirds or so of the twentieth century, now dead, including poets and other creative writers, such as T. S. Eliot, journalists such as Edmund Wilson, and academic literary critics, as distinct from literary scholars, such as F. R. Leavis in England and Cleanth Brooks in the United States, have so few successors that the very genre, if not yet dead, is moribund.1 McDonald deplores the decline of literary criticism and seeks to explain its causes.
In place of literary criticism, McDonald (and many others, such as John Ellis) argue, we have postmodern literary theory, an animal of quite a different color from literary criticism.2 "Texts . . . are interpreted and analysed with a view to unlocking the social norms and attitudes encoded therein, not assessed or evaluated as integral, self-contained creations" (McDonald, p. 21). "The 'best' [is regarded] as a politically dubious category, with selections made in its name often nurturing hidden and hierarchical agendas"(p. ix). "In a comparatively short time, [End Page 385] academic literary criticism has been transformed. Many [literary critics] now regard social activism as the major purpose of literary criticism." And "people who write about literature now write in a prose thick with impenetrable jargon," which erects a barrier between literary theory and literature.3 The well documented decline in the reading of literature has many causes but one may be the obscurantist and politicized style of teaching literature that is in vogue in many colleges.4
But something deeper is involved. After all, most literary teachers are not postmodernists. What has happened is the professionalization, in not altogether a good sense, of literary studies. Let me illustrate. More than half a century ago, Cleanth Brooks published what became a famous book of literary criticism, consisting of close readings of famous poems.5 The New Critics were much taken with the metaphysical poets, the most prominent of whom was John Donne, and the high point of Brooks's book was his brilliant close reading of "Canonization," one of Donne's most famous love poems. Just this year (2008) a professor of literature named Ramie Targoff published John Donne, Soul and Body, which has an extensive treatment of Donne's love poetry, though it does not mention "Canonization." As far as I can judge, Targoff's book is a fine scholarly achievement—well written (and not defaced by jargon), thoroughly researched, thoughtful, imaginative. She argues that contrary to some scholars who have regarded Donne as a Neoplatonist who therefore believed that the highest love is purely spiritual (as it was for Plato), he was, throughout his career—even when he became a fiercely devout Anglican cleric writing fervid religious verse—a believer that body and soul were one in all activities, including sexual love; hence the religious imagery in "Canonization," emphasized by Cleanth Brooks, who would I think have found Targoff's analysis congenial. Her book is I would guess a model of modern literary scholarship.
But here is the difference between Brooks's book, and specifically his discussion of Donne's poem, and Targoff's. Brooks, who though a distinguished Yale English professor did not have a Ph.D., wrote for a mixed audience—academics, students, the general reader—and he made the nonacademic members of that audience want to read Donne, or read more Donne, or re-read Donne with greater understanding and enjoyment. Targoff writes for other scholars of early modern English literature. Someone else who chances on the book (like me) may read it and think well of it, but unless one has esoteric religious or philosophical interests the experience of reading her book will not quicken one's [End Page 386] interest in reading Donne's poetry—which is a great shame, given the state of the literary culture...