Steven Earnshaw

Preface: Now, have we come through?

What would a hubristic overview of the interplay between literature and value declare?

It would say that for the past five or so years literary theory has been tamed and is now in the process of being vilified. Defining itself against the outrages and ravages of post-structuralist theory this declaration would argue for a revaluation of 'Literature', perhaps at the cost of 'cultural studies'. It would mention the name 'Leavis', with some trepidation perhaps, but nevertheless the beast would be approached in a more engaged manner. It would say that it wanted to read with the literary grain rather than coldly, arrogantly, against it. It would say that slouching towards us was a revised humanism, a humanism that is 'non-essentialist'. The acceptance of creative writing alongside more traditional literary studies might be noted as a welcome integration. There would be the recognition - in the face of state-sponsored pressures to recognise the opposite - that 'objective evaluative criteria' are not always necessarily the holy grail, or, indeed, achievable in all areas: instead, there are shared battles over 'aesthetic worth', 'good literature'. The declaration would identify the ways in which evaluation continues to be avoided in the name of an unspoken relativism. The belief that literature has no intrinsic worth, but is there solely as the vicitm of a metadiscourse - race, gender, class - has held sway. Would the move now be towards the return of an 'aesthetics' that sought to imagine a realm beyond self-interested contingency? Or are all these things - humanism, Leavis, 'good literature', aesthetics - signs of recidivism?

Questions of 'value' have consistently wrong-footed literary and critical theorists. The quasi-sciences of deconstructive and New-historicist methods, on the back of structuralism, always have some implicit value-structure. Why are certain texts chosen - does this not imply a value criteria? Why not, then, just choose a bus ticket as a text? There are at least three responses. The first is force of habit: lecturers of literature are undoubtedly interested in the areas they themselves have studied and researched. These texts and ideas are then reproduced in the courses they might teach and inaugurate, as well as in the continuance of research. When Antony Easthope (1991) wanted to transform 'literary into cultural studies' he chose to compare 'Heart of Darkness' with Tarzan . This was a dissolution of a certain kind of literary aesthetic into the 'affective' of popular literature (presumably the body of knowledge desired by cultural studies). But his choice of Conrad was surely a continuation of the 'tradition' of good literature that he could not unhinge himself from (why not just look at Burroughs instead?). The second answer is related and what Chris Ringrose in his article calls 'productivity'. We know that in teaching some texts - Beloved rather than Jazz - there is simply more to say on the part of all concerned, within the context of the teaching of literature. To take the extreme 'Cultural Studies contra Eng Lit.' argument, unless the intention is to read outwards from a bus ticket into a complete culture - in which case it is an excuse for doing something else - the ticket is soon exhausted as an object of interest. The third response is to suggest that there is no such thing as 'literature', that there is no notion of a 'literary aesthetic' that does not involve some circularity of argument. But this, too, is receding. Any attempt to replace 'literature' with a textualisation of all print, that is, turning all print into 'text' without distinction, would appear to encounter the same problem in its process of definition: 'Cultural Studies' - what is 'culture'? Not that these definitions should not be attempted - but their sphere is that of 'grounding' areas of study, and to do this at every single instance can be rather fruitless.

Why is it so wrong to argue that certain texts have more value than others? Why is it wrong to say that certain poets are worthy of study whereas others are not? By forcing these questions upon us the concerns of literary theory and critical/cultural studies have served broader literary study well. They have forced an attempt at explicitness from those who might otherwise assume the mantle of authority as the final arbiter. But who would want to teach (or, perhaps more pointedly, study) just any old text? Is there not a professional responsibility to teach something worthwhile? And is it not part of the professional duty to at least try to decide what is worthy of study - not just impose 'methods of study' for political reasons on any old piece of writing?

In Robert Pirsig's philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (1974) the mental breakdown of an English lecturer obsessed with the nature of value was the narrative premiss. That such a quest for alternatives to the prevailing materialist culture at the deepest philosophical and cultural levels should lead to nervous exhaustion is a sign of just how fraught this issue of value and literature could be. His battle was against the materialism of the age. There have been a few axes ground against literature and its study. Some of them have been specific - the attacks made by those with a cultural studies and/or critical theory agenda, whilst others have been the result of (materialist) utilitarianism - the more recent government pressure to benchmark, for instance. The collection of essays here explores these issues.


Suggested Navigation

I might suggest an ordered way through these essays if unstructured reading or pure browsing has no intrinsic appeal. Chris Ringrose's essay provides an excellent analysis of the various arguments specific to Literature and Value. It also lays bare the practical issues of English studies teaching and the most recent attempts to define 'English' through the various government bodies. You might want to rethink Leavis after this - in which case turn to Gary Day's piece - because Leavis's name will turn up in other essays. In throwing out Leavis, post-structural literary theory was throwing out liberal humanism and essentialism and attempting to distance itself from 'value'. The narrowness of this action is approached by Andy Mousley who identifies humanist concerns in many of the critics who overtly deny it, or have assumed that all 'humanism' is 'liberal humanism'.

Alternatively, following on from Chris Ringrose's excursion into the current curriculum, you could turn to Keith Green's essay on the increasing integration of creative writing into English Studies. He uses this to analyse marking criteria, and the desire for objective assessment. Or start with Douglas Burnham and Darrell Hinchcliffe's analysis of the post-structuralist view of value - as an 'effect' rather than something 'grounded' - taking in as it does the various ways in which post-structural literary theory constructs its relationship with literature.

You could start with literary analysis at the sharp end. Jane Dowson and David Kennedy present essays dealing with the politics of literary value. Dowson shows how value is offered in a neutral (male) way to the detriment of a more considered view of women's poetry. Kennedy shows how there has been implicit evaluation in the supposed leveling of 'mapping'. From here...


Works Cited

Easthope, Antony (1991) Literary into Cultural Studies London: Routledge.

Pirsig, Robert M. (1989/1974) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance London: Black Swan.


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