Prompted by Ronan McDonald’s The Death of the Critic, Salon offers a thoughtful conversation between Louis Bayard and Laura Miller in which they ask whodunit (“Who killed the literary critic?“). There are plenty of culprits: overabundance of entertainment options, intellectual snobbery, cultural studies, poststructuralism, democracy, newspapers, blogs, etc. (I wish they would have written it up as a locked-room mystery.) I liked a lot of what they said, but two lines in particular resonated with me:
I’m all for cultural gatekeepers because there’s way more out there than I have time to read and it’s not always easy to find the best of it. (Miller)
People will only value literary criticism to the extent they value literature. (Bayard)
And why doesn’t literature have the power it once did? I’m going with Option A: competition. If you were a nineteenth-century sodbuster and you owned two books, the Bible and Great Expectations, those stories would be pretty vivid in your mind, right? And a generation later, when radio came to your prairie town, those tinny voices would have made your neurons light up. And then TV…and the Internet…and so on. With each new technological advance helping to eliminate the need to imagine and visualize other worlds, each new generation is seduced a little bit more by the ease of having it done for them.
In fact, it’s probably safe to say that TV doesn’t have the overwhelming power it once did, and even Web 2.0 is just waiting for Web 3-D to render it somewhat quaint: reading those blogs takes too much work when a holographic avatar can deliver the text for you wearing the costume of your choice.
If novels don’t have the power that they did in the mid-twentieth century, criticism won’t, either. But that doesn’t mean that critics should give up. In an increasingly loud and crowded marketplace of ideas, they just need to work harder at speaking in a voice that can be understood.