The Critical Economy (correspondence from Richard Riegel)
Posted by s woods on December 7, 2011
Richard Riegel writes:
“I’m really impressed with Jennifer Szalai’s review of a collection of Dwight Macdonald’s criticism, in the December 12 issue of The Nation, the paper version of which I still subscribe to. It’s a good discussion about Macdonald himself, and his concepts of ‘Midcult’ and ‘Masscult,’ but Szalai’s comments about the current state of criticism are even better for our purposes. She’s talking about literary criticism, of course, but a lot of what she says applies to rock criticism & its fade too. I’d been thinking all along that ‘we’ were being hollowed out by the general economic decline, and that’s exactly what Szalai says here, especially in the two paragraphs I’ve excerpted below:
If one were to point out that the wider authority of literary criticism is barely discernible today, one could hardly be accused of courting a controversy or kicking up a fuss. There certainly is a coterie of Americans for whom literature and its criticism is a matter of urgency or livelihood or both, but the notion of the literary critic as a cultural gatekeeper, whose judgments shape tastes and move units, sounds either fanciful or anachronistic, depending on whether you believe that such a creature ever really existed. Our culture is now so big and so varied, the population so diverse and so fragmented, that the very idea of anything or anyone having “wider authority” sounds silly, if not absurd.
The critical landscape has since been denuded of a whole class of reviewers — the professional critics for those many newspapers and magazines that have cut down their books pages or else eliminated them. Optimists have pointed to the proliferation of online reviews as an indication that criticism is flourishing, but the payment for most reviewing these days is meager to nil. When writing a review becomes a diversion instead of a vocation, or else an arena for book authors to horse-trade and log-roll—the literary world’s penurious equivalent of the financial world’s “revolving door” — then reviewing will list toward clubbiness, bitterness or mushy praise. There are clearly some brilliant exceptions, and even a few determined critics who make a living from reviewing; but like the society of which it is one minuscule part, criticism has largely become a winner-take-all profession. Those who wonder what happened to criticism should wonder what happened to the economics of it.