Caliban casts out Ariel

Our literary culture is threatened by the decline of quality criticism. Kevin Sharpe demands that scholars fight back

February 25, 2010

Other countries, especially the US, have long envied the vitality of Britain's literary culture. Essential to that culture have been the review pages, which for years played a crucial role in making intellectual debate a significant feature of public discourse. As well as our excellent weekly political and cultural magazines, our newspapers traditionally gave considerable space to reviews of serious books by serious scholars who, writing lucidly, communicated some of the most important new research to an intelligent lay public.

This is no longer the case. Take The Sunday Times, with which I have long been familiar as a reader and reviewer. Where once one went to the books pages for engaged and critical reviews, one now sees a luvvie fest, where popular biographies are gushingly praised by popular biographers, amateur (and slightly researched) histories are lauded by amateur historians, and sensational tales of the once famous are promoted by the would-be famous. What was once substantial and serious has given way to the light and trite; what was once engaged criticism has become vacuous puffing.

The causes are not entirely clear. I have heard it said that publishers became irritated by academic reviewers who dared to carp at their books. Space for reviews has been under pressure. The culture of celebrity has influenced the choice of books reviewed; and the lack of serious reviews of important books is part of a dumbing down that has changed the nature and quality of our media, leaving only a handful of television programmes that don't treat the public as simpletons.

Whatever the reasons for the decline, the consequences are serious. Although as scholars and thinkers we remain blessed with the Times Literary Supplement and Times Higher Education, the reluctance of newspaper literary editors to give space to anything but "trade" books is changing the nature of academic work and public perceptions of it.

On the one hand, young scholars keen to make their way in a business-orientated academic culture are indulging the simplicity that will secure their place in the review pages, if not the admiration of their peers. Traditionally, scholars' weighty second and third books were the mark of academic progression. Now they are being replaced by derivative, thin, quick and popular works, which contribute little of long-term value. Worse still, the danger is that some young scholars are setting aside even the first monograph to pursue publicity in more populist writing.

On the other, the public is misled into thinking that what appears in the review pages is symptomatic of the best recent scholarship - which, with few exceptions, it is not. We are seeing a separation of academic and public discourse at a time when it has never been more important that the layman has some notion of what universities are doing.

Politicians rightly urge academics to communicate to a broader public, and some have successfully answered that call without abandoning standards. But there is a danger that government policy is compounding the problem by diluting scholarship in the name of publicity. Most research grants now require demonstration of "public impact" and "knowledge transfer" - which in principle is no bad thing. The problem comes when public outreach is simplemindedly confused with publicity. It is not five lines in the Daily Mail, the TV sound bite or the Sunday review that demonstrates scholarly impact - especially if the media fail to engage with the most serious scholarship.

We are in danger from all sides of being drawn into a spiral of decline in which even academic worth is measured in terms of publicity, and the lightweight is seen as more valuable than the substantial. Although academics have a duty to explain themselves to their paymasters, the people, researchers do not have the inherent responsibility to be popular or easily understood.

We need scholars willing to communicate the most difficult ideas clearly and interestingly, and media and review pages that give them space to do so. As the best scholars have always demonstrated, the most serious scholarship can be entertaining and substantial. Let us urge our literary editors to stop regarding the one as the opposite of the other.

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