Thinking Points (IX) – A Belated Response to Peter Stothard’s Comments on the Value of Criticism

The best time to write a response to a debate is some time after the controversy around it has died down, in order to get a measure of perspective about the issue and see through the immediate outrage. In September 2012, the head judge of the Booker Prize, Peter Stothard, claimed that “the mass of unargued opinion” available online risked diminishing literature; this was reported by the media as “blogs are harming literature” which led to a spirited but ultimately misguided debate.

If one considers Stothard’s exact words, then there is no controversy at all; he argues that if criticism is replaced by unfounded argument, then there will be less of a debate and vital discourse about literature. Reporting this as some kind of us-and-them conflict between “blogs” as an amorphous whole and “professional critics”, as many literature columnists wanted to do, adds an unhelpful dimension of class and free speech to this; it is easy to frame Stothard’s words as trying to silence opposition to the critical establishment. Were this what was being said, then it would be more contentious; trying to argue that people have no right to voice their opinions is foolish and reductive. However, the argument is a different one that was missed in the spirited defence of amateur criticism; unargued opinion is bad. One can debate back-and-forth endlessly about how much of modern online comment on books is well-argued, supported by the text and generally good criticism and how much is simple attention-seeking and assertion with no support but what Stothard is saying will diminish literary discourse – and by extension literature – is if the latter supercedes the former as the main way of talking about books.

The next logical leap is to reduce the argument to “some opinions are more valuable than others” and shut it off in that way as a facile statement of the obvious of no value; to do so again is too reductive. It is self-evident that a professional opinion is more “valuable” in some sense than an amateur one since a professional in a field will be up-to-date on its latest developments, have extensive specialist training and so on. This is not the same as, although it was held to be, “working for a newspaper.” Professional criticism, a weak and nebulous term as it is and one that the quote in question does not even use, is well-argued, rigorous and text-supported criticism; that this is generally the preserve of the press and academia is another thing, and ultimately where the real issue here lies. Much of the opposition to “professional criticism” comes from the belief it is insular, outmoded and corrupt; that contacts are more important than actual talent and that it does not reflect modern trends in literature. Therefore, the amateur, who rejects all of its tenets, is inherently better because they are new. The issue here should not be that rejecting the intrinsic value of educated opinion is the right course of action because that education is held by the “old guard” but instead that if access to the education and contacts needed to become a “professional” in a field is unequal, that should be the focus. The class issue here – for ultimately there is one, simply not the one many think there is – is about access to education and opportunity being the barrier to literary discourse. If what it took to be a “professional” critic was a good education and a love of literature, and this opportunity was available to all, I doubt there would be the same defence of unargued opinion and amateurism. The best response to the inadequacy of the status quo is not to abandon it completely to treat the symptoms (in this case rejecting educated criticism because access to it is uneven) but instead to address the cause (improving the teaching of English in schools at all levels, addressing class imbalance in the media as its own issue).

Ultimately, I write this blog and so I suppose I should come out against Stothard – to agree with him could be seen as me saying “I dislike amateurs but of course I’m not one.” I do not think this is a useful view; at no point is Stothard saying that amateurs should not be allowed their opinions. What is instead being said is that amateur and unsupported opinion needs to be recognised as distinct from informed opinion. It is a general response not to the idea of expressing one’s views on something, but to the lack of respect for education that accompanies this increasing freedom of access to information. This is a distinct, yet still linked, issue to access to education and prevailing reductive attitudes among the current generation of critics. Complaining about the unequal access to education in modern society, or that modern academia needs to be brought up to date, is not the same as trumpeting amateurism over experience. The dichotomy is really one between “more useful opinions” and “less useful ones” – both educated opinions, though. Citing unargued criticism and the cult of amateurism as the future, feting its rejection of experience, theory and education as its strength, is not going to lead to the desired result. The discourse about literature will be modernised and improved when everyone has the potential to become a “professional” (for ultimately professionalism and credibility in criticism is based on education and talent) not when there are no professionals. This is not an attack on blogs per se, and claiming that any one blog is better than any other achieves nothing – it is instead an attack on the modern trend to attack being educated and professional under the guise of fighting a class struggle.

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