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It now seems clear that literary criticism was inherently doomed. Explicitly or otherwise it had based itself on a structure of echelons and hierarchies; it was about talent and elite. And the structure atomised as soon as the forces of democratisation gave their next concerted push. These forces — incomparably the more potent in our culture — have gone on pushing . . .

This assertive, engaging way of thinking, with its unacademic turn of phrase, shows the value of the independent critic.

Amis has style, intelligence, wit and force of personality; and he has the essential passion for literature and cultural values. But he never aimed to be a great, or really scholarly critic, only an entertaining and perceptive one.

This he certainly has achieved:  reading him, we are in very different territory from that of the chap who announced in the Spectator that he had written a book called How to sound cultured: Master the 250 names that intellectuals love to drop into conversation. (Still, I must get hold of a copy asap.)

Amis is 67 now, and we should be turning to the best minds of a younger group. Let me define more exactly, though, what my ideal cultural critics might be like, and identify some of the forces that are driving them off course. They would, for a start, be able to write about European and American literature and culture as well as our own; to articulate why certain films are better than many novels, and why the best, say, Turkish film of a certain year might be better than all the produce of Hollywood; to evaluate recent poetry, music and architecture (within, for the non-specialist, reason); to write persuasively, memorably, and with luck wittily. They should be highly intelligent; have a lively and educated sensibility; be formidably well-read (though not as well-read as Steiner); have at least some talent in an art form such as poetry or storytelling (though probably not first-rank); know at least two or three languages; be a lover of other arts such as music and architecture; be extremely interested in history and philosophy; be discerning enthusiasts for the best in the contemporary arts, and willing to look for greatness in forms such as film. Crucially, they should be able to look forward as well as back. Exhaustive knowledge of any kind is unnecessary, but depth, breadth and taste are essential. Politically, they should be moderates, since otherwise bias may cloud judgment. It is difficult to imagine a really good critic of the far Right or far Left, but party allegiance is otherwise irrelevant; they might or might not have a strong political instinct, but they would need to know and be able to counter the opposition. They should try to avoid the intellectual weaknesses we can spot in the past: the naive-seeming longing for perfection of Arnold, the utopian socialism of Shaw, the nostalgic Christianity of Eliot, the anti-intellectualism of Orwell and the Movement writers, even the obsession of some conservatives with the canon. They can find some new, idiosyncratic fault of their own.

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Richard Biron
April 17th, 2017
10:04 PM
One name rather too quickly dismissed in this interesting piece was Terry Eagleton, whose brilliant book ‘Culture’ (published last year) wasn’t mentioned (it isn’t nearly as leftist as some of his writings): and whether you agree with his politics or not, he is a scholarly and perceptive critic.

Anonymous
April 4th, 2017
5:04 PM
Both Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling deserve a mention in this article. A great read.

Jerry Kavanagh
April 2nd, 2017
10:04 PM
No critic today can match the erudition, the linguistic brilliance, and the experience of John Simon.

Anonymous
April 2nd, 2017
11:04 AM
Wonderful article. And special credit for mentioning James Woods. Woods was the last of the independents. Just read how he was treated by the n+1 crowd (all Yale graduates) and you will quickly see that independence has been replaced by company men doing company business. We're in a tough spot in the U.S. because most 'critics' are alumni of some elite academic institution and thus only praise works that come from same institutions. When was the last time you read a real critique of a Yale or Harvard author? They won't allow it. And now they are all stuck in the feedback loop of their own praise.

Louis Torres
April 1st, 2017
6:04 PM
"Great creative [cultural] critics"? You neglected to mention Jacques Barzun. Louis Torres,Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts and Editor, A Jacques Barzun Compendium - http://www.aristos.org/barzun.htm

Anon
March 31st, 2017
10:03 PM
Western society is now post-western, having abandoned inherited standards in aesthetics, in personal, social and business morality, in manners, in language use and public discourse, in a sense of the spiritual, in its concept of the human person, in the ethics of war. Ideologues on the left and power brokers on the conservative right have legislated against the instincts of commonsense. We walk in a wasteland.

anonymous
March 30th, 2017
8:03 PM
This is a fascinating topic, and such people are surely missed. The current criticism most people rely on comes from websites such as IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes who just aggregate large numbers of opinions. There aren't enough figures who can stand out from the crowd and articulate a view.

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