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Against studying novelistic merit

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Wednesday, Nov 12, 2008

In my former life in academia, the topic debated in these two posts at the Valve would exercise me greatly: Is artistic merit a matter for literary study? As someone who aspired to make unreadable books—late 18th century commercial fiction—relevant again, I certainly didn’t think aesthetic quality was a prerequisite for what I study as a degree-seeker in literature, and I came to think that setting literature on a pedestal for special attention did a disservice to the more important task of understanding social history. The preachers of artistic merit, besides being paternalistic (urging unsuspecting students to “improve” themselves by teaching them literary appreciation and fostering their exposure to Great Art, the right art), tended to mistake their tastes for universal truths, which had the subtle and troubling effect of making contemporary academic tastes trans-normative while obliterating our ability to perceive the norms of earlier eras. Preserving those norms and getting inside them seemed the most important thing about studying literature to me; it gives us a palpable sense of how what Raymond Williams called “structures of feeling”—can change over time. That gives hope that the current consumerist era we are mired in is not permanent. So I agree with Rohan Maitzen’s pedagogical approach:


One of the key features of this approach is working with a text on its own terms—trying to understand how to read it so that it best fulfills its own potential. This means not holding it up to a particular, preconceived standard of excellence (“good novels do this“), whether that standard is formal or ideological. Now, depending on the occasion, there may be a second phase in which you move back from internally-generated norms and question them against external ideas; often, in teaching, this kind of questioning arises just from moving to the next book on the syllabus and discovering that its norms differ widely from—and thus, implicitly or explicitly, challenge—the ones we’ve just left behind (reading North and South right after Hard Times, or Jane Eyre soon after Pride and Prejudice, for instance, will certainly have this effect). But it’s difficult to see either a method or a reason for evaluating, say, Pride and Prejudice, as better or worse than Jane Eyre. It’s only if you have a set notion of what makes good fiction in general that you could fault either one for not measuring up.


In moving from book to book, and in noticing the shifting norms, one ideally draws in work in other disciplines that can help articulate that shift and allow one to theorize its causes. A certain amount of the shift has to do with the writers themselves, but to me, that’s the ineffable, ultimately inexplicable and irrelevant aspect we should strive to strain out. Those concerned with artistic merit (and who are not teaching creative writing as opposed to literature) seem to want to focus only on that individual “genius,” with the effect of ultimately invalidating truly critical insight—namely insight into what shifts social norms with regard to how readers take their entertainment, and what those modes of entertainment say about the society those readers lived in and that we have in part inherited. My suspicion is that reified entertainment—books being one of the first instances of this—is a crucial component of capitalist society and the nature of our enjoyment of such things has changed as capitalism has entrenched itself more deeply, in the material structure of our society and in the inner workings of our psyche as well, shaping how we discover pleasure and from what, shaping the methods by which we internalize mores and develop ambitions and aspirations. These are the inner, individual mental structures that ultimately sustain socioeconomic formations.


Dan Green’s retort to Maitzen seems unduly preoccupied with a literary work’s value in and of itself - - an irreducible matter of personal taste :


While it is true that a literary criticism not bound to academe might still give attention to “philosophizing,” et.al., it is hard to imagine that such criticism would so willingly apologize for aesthetically inferior work as academic criticism in its current guise is forced to do. It’s possible that literary criticism might one day free itself from the pedagogical imperatives with which the academy has burdened it. When that happens, “artistic merit” might not be as dispensable as many academic critics want to find it.


This statement immediately makes me wonder who gets to decide what is “aesthetically inferior” and on what grounds. Also, I wonder whether literary criticism even exists outside of academia. Literature, as a concept, is an academic construction. Criticism that hones that definition is an academic exercise. Outside of the academy, people who write about books are reviewers, not critics.


In short, whether or not a novel is “good” shouldn’t matter to people who study them; that only matters to people who want to read them for pleasure. What would make a typical reader of a particular time choose a certain novel for pleasure, however, may be the most important question of all. To answer that, we have to disregard what we think that reader should prefer.

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