What Is the Role of the Modern Critic?

Question: What is the cultural role of a literary critic now?

Louis Menand:  I think in the, for most of the 20th century, and certainly through the period when I was in school, print was king and literature was thought to be the essence of a society or a civilization’s expression of itself.  You learned French literature or you learned British literature or you learned American literature because that was a way of understanding that particular culture.  And I think print is no longer king, no duh, and I also think that the idea that there’s such a thing as a national literature that’s somehow uniquely expressive of a national soul or culture or mentality is probably also something that nobody really believes in anymore.

So the kind of criticism that a Trilling could practice or an Edmund Wilson could practice in the 1940’s, 1950’s, is obsolete in that sense.

Secondly, I think that when Trilling wrote the essays in “The Liberal Imagination,” which came out in 1950, he was writing for educated people, most of them not academics, because the book was actually a bestseller and bought by people far outside the academy. But it was a readership of people who believed that your taste in literature or your taste in music or your taste in painting actually told people something about your values, in particularly your political values.  That’s what “The Liberal Imagination,” that volume, is all about.  I don’t think people believe that any more, I don’t think people think that it really matters whether you appreciate Henry James more than Theodore Dreiser, to use an example that Trilling used, or whether you prefer the Beatles to the Sex Pistols, or whatever the current version of that argument is, I think people like to have the argument, but I don’t think they think a whole lot turns on which side you come out on.

So to that extent, the job of the critic, as it might have been conceived in the 1950’s or 1960’s, was some kind of role of moral arbiter for people, not a huge number of people, but people who were, you know, fairly educated, well-placed people.  I don’t think anybody really thinks of critics as performing that function any more.  To me, that’s a good thing, because to me, I think, you want to have available to people lots of opportunities to experience literature, art, movies, whatever it is, without feeling that there’s some moral question that’s involved in that appreciation.  Sometimes there is, sometimes it’s important to engage it, but I don’t think that taste should be the decider of moral issues.

The kind of literary criticism that Lionel Trilling practiced, which assumed that national literatures reflected deep national values, is dead now.

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