Salon asks two of its lit-types to discuss whether the professional critic is dead, esp in the age of the free opinion yelled into the cyberwind. Miller kind of goes where I tend to go: after the critic with the best prose stylings. Good writing trumps all? Also, they’ve just discovered Frye down there, apparently.
Bayard: I find I’m drawn to critics for the same reason I’m drawn to any writer: the quality of their prose. They can misinterpret and misevaluate to their heart’s delight as long as they make the words dance. Helen Vendler and Harold Bloom may be preeminent in their respective fields, but I read their prose only under duress. Whereas, no matter how wrongheaded she is, I’ll read anything by Pauline Kael. Or Anthony Lane or Clive James or, yes, James Wood.
And thanks to McDonald’s book, I now want to read more of Northrop Frye, who fired this sterling round of grapeshot at T.S. Eliot for fiddling with the canon of great writers: “…all the literary chit-chat which makes the reputations of poets boom and crash in an imaginary stock-exchange. The wealthy investor, Mr. Eliot, after dumping Milton on the market, is now buying him again; Donne has probably reached his peak and will begin to taper off; Tennyson may be in for a slight flutter but the Shelley stocks are still bearish. This sort of thing cannot be part of any systematic study, for a systematic study can only progress: whatever dithers or vacillates or reacts is merely leisure-class gossip.” Of course, I take Frye’s thematic point — the vagaries of taste are a fickle criterion for evaluation — but I’m more impressed by the dazzling execution of that stock-market metaphor and that ever-so-subtle colon in the last sentence. Anyone who wants to write about writing should be able to write.
Miller: Oddly enough, I read Frye’s “Anatomy of Criticism” just last year. Not all of it, alas, is quite so witty as the line you quote (underlined in my copy!), but I still found it illuminating, however unfashionable Frye may be these days. That man was well-read; one of the more lamentable casualties of the theory boom was that it produced thousands of English majors who can speak Lacan but who’ve never read, say, Philip Sidney.