Reviewed by John Glover, Reference Librarian for the Humanities
The history of literary criticism is not among the world's most well-known leisure reading subjects, and yet this book is an engrossing study of how tastes in literature change. It's particularly relevant if you spend time thinking about whether what you're reading is good, bad, or indifferent. In 149 pages, Rónán McDonald travels from Aristotle's Poetics all the way to book review blogs like Bookslut and The Book Review Blog
The central questions of this book are whether it is good to evaluate the quality of literature, and, if so, whether trained critics are any better at doing it than journalists or the common bookworm. This book happened more or less as a result of the gradual turn against critical evaluation in the last half of the 20th century, but it was particularly spurred by John Carey's 2005 book, What Good Are the Arts?, which left McDonald wondering how things could possibly have come to this point.
This book is not a deep academic analysis of the central questions, but a survey of literary criticism and how it got from "beauty is truth" to "there is no truth in beauty." If your experience of literary criticism starts with Marx and ends with Foucault, it may surprise you to read about the archetypal criticism of Northrop Frye, the place of Keats' aesthetics, or Virginia Woolf's views on gender privilege and identity.