Rather than a dreary point-by-point response to everything objectionable in the essay, I want to focus on one issue in it that Alan Jacobs and I were discussing earlier on Twitter, because it’s a problem that crops up in similar jeremiads against the culture of the present.
Edmundson complains that literary scholars stopped making judgments about the relative quality of literary and cultural work in the course of the 1960s, thereby instantaneously flushing the entirety of the Western tradition down the toilet in a matter of a decade or so. Why didn’t the public at large just keep at the discernment of quality thing? Because ultimately Edmundson, similar to some conservative or traditionalist humanists, believes in a command model. The public only valued literature because the critics told them to. The public only understood literature because the critics told them what it meant. The public only read literature because the critics lead them through the reading of it. Once the commandment vanished, so did the Western tradition itself, and with extraordinary rapidity.
For one, this doesn’t exactly square with claims about the immortal greatness of Shakespeare, Milton, Melville, etcetera. So self-evidently great, so full of incomparable majesty and worth, so important that they get tossed overboard for “Three’s Company” and some nachos the moment a small group of tweed-festooned men stop continuously churning out oracular instructions about how to read and honor the classics? That’s a picture of literary criticism that makes critics sound more like secret police for an authoritarian regime.
Second, of course, most of the canon as it stood in 1950 or so is still being read and valued by critics and general audiences alike. But I’m tired of trying to make that particular point to the “English departments only teach classes about the laundry lists of left-handed lesbian Iniut factory workers” crowd: you can hear a thunderous squoosh of fingers inserted into earwax every time this fact gets in the way.
Third, and most important, Edmundson and a small number of similarly-minded critics prefer to see criticism in terms of a command model, and their critical colleagues as betrayers, because the alternative is to actually make arguments about quality that are persuasive. If there’s anything that’s been forgotten (by Edmundson, apparently) it is that these are the hardest kinds of interpretation, not the easiest, at least if you want to make them as substantive, well-reasoned intellectual claims built on a systematic infrastructure that other critics could add to or disagree with. Arnold’s aphorism about the best that has been said and known stirs many a critical heart, but don’t forget the hard work that follows if you don’t want statements about quality to simply be a tea-sipping genteel version of The Argument Clinic from Monty Python.
When a critic with this complaint against the present moment actually ventures to anoint a literary work as having quality (or as lacking it), their assertion often comes down to one of three things: 1) of course this is great, because it is one of those works that was called great by those great literary critics we used to have; 2) of course this is great because the wrong kind of lesbo-Marxist-postmodernist critics hate it WARGLEBARGLE LOOK OVER THERE IT’S A UFO; 3) of course this is great because it talks about love and sadness and things that are very profound and makes me feel all philosophical and stuff, like when I was a teenager and did I ever tell you about how I felt in high school?
Go ahead, think about it for a minute. Why is one work of literature great and another not so much? For that matter, why is a work of high culture great compared to a work of popular culture? (Or is it?) The answers to those questions are never obvious. If you think you can tell me in a paragraph why Moby Dick is a greater work of literature than Northanger Abbey, I don’t think you really know what you’re talking about, even though I’d completely agree with the sentiment.
There is a reason that critics did stop making “is this great?” the first and last question of literary analysis (Edmundson is not wrong to say that this problem has been sidelined in cultural criticism, and this does indeed raise problems, as the concept of good and bad work is indispensible). The reason is that it’s a really hard philosophical problem that was made to seem easier through slight-of-hand when the answer was conflated with the preferences and tastes of a fairly narrow social class that held itself aloof from a wider public.
It is not a question that can be successfully answered through collecting data or assembling evidence. The history of critical judgment does not provide one with any confidence of steady improvement over time in the sorting of great from not-great, even before the dirty hippies and postmodernists wrecked the whole thing. Many works that traditionalists now commonly celebrate as self-evidently “great”, literature that makes its way into Great Books programs, was not infrequently once regarded by expert judgment as derivative, weak, pointlessly transgressive, vulgar, or lowbrow popularizing. Tell me that Dickens is great, and I’ll remind you that there were once expert critics who saw him otherwise. It works as well the other direction as well: there’s a long list of works once lauded as self-evidently great which even the most florid defender of the traditional canon would likely concede are now best forgotten.
I’d welcome an investigation of what makes some cultural works great and others ordinary or bad that was consciously intended to provide a critical toolkit to other readers and critics. Note that to be useful as an infrastructure for future criticism, such a work couldn’t answer all questions of greatness in advance. Not a canon, but the foundation for making a canon. To be useful, it would have to be applicable to works that its creator had never read or considered, and to stimulate rather than close down debate about works that its creator knows well.
That’s a mighty work I’m imagining. I wouldn’t blame anyone for refusing to tackle it. I would blame those, however, who regard this kind of critical judgment as easy, blame all the rest of the world for failing to undertake it, and yet can’t seem to be bothered to do it themselves beyond a few one-liner declarations about the greatness of favored works.