On the one hand, Rohan Maitzen's comments about the nature of "academic criticism" seem to me unimpeachably correct:
. . .aesthetic judgment is not currently seen as a central (maybe even an appropriate) aim of academic criticism. We are too aware of the shifting nature of such judgments, for one thing, and of the many reasons besides aesthetic ones for finding a text worth studying. If asked whether a book is good, an academic is likely to reply 'good at what?' or 'good in relation to what?' or 'good for what?' It may be that this insistence on refining the question, or examining its implicit assumptions, is part of what makes academic criticism less appealing to the 'average intelligent reader,' if what they are after is actually a recommendation. . . .
On the other, that "aesthetic judgment is not currently seen as a central (maybe even an appropriate) aim of academic criticism" is probably the ultimate reason why "academic criticism" as specifically an act of literary criticism is not likely to survive much longer.
The only period in the history of academic criticism (which runs roughly from the 1920s to the present) in which "aesthetic judgment" was seen as the "central" goal of criticism was really the period dominated by New Criticism, which was in turn the critical method that solidified academic criticism's place in academe's disciplinary structure. Before the rise of New Criticism, those who opposed converting English departments from philology (the study of the etymology of words) to literary study proper (the study of texts as texts) did so precisely because something as nebulous as "aesthetic judgment"--or "appreciation"--was not considered an appropriate focus of academic inquiry. New Criticism provided a plausible method of quasi-rigorous scrutiny of texts that finally satisfied most criteria of what constitutes a properly "academic" field of study.
Yet even New Criticism did not really rest on "aesthetic judgment" as its foundation. New Criticism's strategy of "close reading" was not primarily used to make judgments about the objects of its scrutiny, to declare some texts "good" and others not. The New Critics generally assumed the value of the works they examined (in fact mostly poems), although in some cases their readings did seek to demonstrate to perhaps skeptical readers that the work at hand possessed the requisite degree of "complexity" that New Criticism most fundamentally valued. (And in some instances, such as Cleanth Brooks's reading of Wordsworth's Intimations Ode, they also attempted to show that even works less generally esteemed according to New Critical standards could still be worthy of serious attention.) But the New Critics would never have conceded to the notion of "the shifting nature" of value judgments. The point of New Criticism was to establish that it was the critical method applying authentic "literary" criteria to the reading of literary texts. Some readers might find value in such texts for extrinsic reasons--political, historical, cultural--but for the New Critics, readers assessing them through the rigors of close reading would hardly come to the kind of relativistic conclusions Rohan's comment entails.
Still, as the New Critics implicitly recognized, it's difficult to justify the study of literature as part of an academic curriculum if the primary purpose is to arrive at "value judgments." Something more tangible than "appreciation" has to be the fruit of literary study or it does indeed become such a "soft" discipline that few serious-minded students will want to pursue it and even fewer scholars from other disciplines will consider it a respectable practice. However, the very fact that New Criticism was able to establish itself as a suitable "approach" to the study of literature utlimately became the seed of its own undoing. If appreciation is not the only possible goal of literary study, then neither is form-oriented close reading. "Refining the question," or even changing it altogether, is not only possible but, given the academic imperative to create "new" knowledge, almost inevitable. More than anything else, I would say, this changing of the critical guard, the cycling through of formalism, structuralism, post-structuralism, historicism, cultural studies, is what makes academic criticism "less appealing" to non-academic readers. It is a disciplinary debate between academics the ramifications of which are of importance only to academics.
However, I also think it's a little unfair to say that the "average intelligent reader" is interested merely in a "recommendation." This only reinforces the divide between "criticism," which is perforce practiced primarily in the academy, and reviewing, the goal of which is presumably to provide a recommendation. It is the existence of this divide, whereby the academy is considered to be the place where genuine literary criticism is practiced, while general interest book discussion involves. . . something else, that has helped to make academic criticism seem so insular, so reluctant to make itself intelligible to "ordinary" readers (no relevant recognition from other "experts" will ensue) and that has made what passes for general interest criticism so pallid and formulaic. (Although certainly academic criticism follows it own kind of formulas as well.) As I have suggested several times on this blog, what both contemporary literature and literary criticism need is not for academic critics to become more "accessible" but for literary magazines and journals to publish more non-academic criticism that goes beyond book chat and conventional journalistic reviews but that also avoids the navel-gazing "refinements" of academic criticism.
And even though there are "many reasons besides aesthetic ones for finding a text worth studying," I further believe that most readers of poetry and fiction are drawn to them for the aesthetic reasons first of all. Some may later on take an interest in all those other things a text is "good for," but in my opinion most habitual readers of literary works want most immediately to have a fulfilling reading experience and, to the extent that criticism is pertinent to this goal, to use literary criticism as a way of enlarging and enhancing this experience. Thus, if "many non-academic readers would in fact like to think in more careful ways about their reading," as Rohan acknowledges, and if that's "where academic expertise presented in an accessible manner comes in," then the kind of "expertise" such readers might find helpful would be an ability to describe the aesthetic strategies and effects at work in a text, based ultimately on the ability to pay careful and focused attention to the text, in effect to let it reveal its own aesthetic nature. A knowledge of literary history and of the ways in which all poetry and fiction is finally implicated in that history could also be valuable, as long as that knowledge is put in the service of illuminating the work at hand, not of demonstrating the critic's own superior powers of discernment.
Suffice it to say that academic criticism has long abandoned this modest though still worthwhile mission. It has almost abandoned literature itself, except where it can still be used to illustrate the critic's particular theoretical construct or cultural diagnosis. Pretty clearly, "literary criticism" as practiced in the academy has shifted its emphasis to an analytical perspective more like philosophy for some, more like sociology for others. Since most "non-academic" readers read works of literature for their literary qualities (which, although they can't be defined precisely, at least not to everyone's satisfaction, are still readily enough apparent to those who are looking for them) and not as opportunities to do philosophy or study social patterns, academic criticism isn't going to become more accessible to these readers, only less so. The real question becomes whether a new kind of literary criticism will arise, one less concerned with being "rewarded professionally" by the academy and more concerned with the elucidation of literature, less concerned with providing consumer guidance (buy this, don't buy that) and more concerned with assisting the consumers of fiction or poetry to guide themselves.