Literary value – in the sense of the worth, usefulness or importance of the literary – has been a topic of debate from no later than Plato’s impugning of poetry. But from the so-called canon wars of the last century to the present, literary value has also become a perplexing source of distress. With its complicities thoroughly unmasked, it no longer axiomatically serves as literary study’s central justification. Yet no consensus alternative has taken its place. This book, unlike other approaches to the topic, neither pursues an apologetic thesis about the most defining values of literature nor conversely provides a demystifying account of the ideological uses of specific ascribed values. Instead, arguing that the category of literary value is ultimately inescapable, it focuses pragmatically on everyday scholarly and pedagogical activities, proposing how we may reconcile that category’s inevitability with our understandable wariness of its intractable uncertainties and complicities. Toward these ends, it offers a preliminary theory of literary valuing and explores the problem of literary value and possible responses in respect to the literary edition, canonicity and interpretation. Much of this exploration occurs within Chaucer studies, which, because of Chaucer’s simultaneous canonicity and marginality, provides fertile ground for thinking through the problem’s challenges. The book thereby also supplies an extended reflection on the state of Chaucer studies. In using this subfield as a kind of synecdoche for the field as a whole, the book seeks to forge a viable rationale for literary studies within and without the academy.
The introduction establishes the book’s topic and explains the book’s rationale, organisation and coverage. After describing the book’s focus and purpose, the introduction defines some of the book’s basic terms and outlines the general nature of the problem of literary value that it considers. Seeking then to distinguish its project from others that consider literary value, the introduction provides accounts of competing approaches, and it situates those approaches and its own in the contexts of both literary critical history and the current pressures on and problems within the literary studies. Against that backdrop, the introduction provides an overview of the ensuing chapters, explaining their organisation and function in relation to the book as a whole, as well as their individual focuses and major points. In particular, the introduction explains the relation of the topical chapters – the first on the Chaucer edition, the fourth on canonicity and the fifth on interpretation – to the theoretical chapters (the second and third). The introduction closes by providing a rationale for the extent to which it pursues its explorations within Chaucer studies specifically.
The first chapter explores a particular manifestation of the problem of literary value in order to delineate in some detail the contours of that problem as a basis for the theoretical chapters that follow. Specifically, it examines the problem in relation to the Chaucer edition, centring its attention on a critique of the Chaucer edition from the perspective of manuscript studies, a critique that achieved some prominence in the 1990s but by the second decade of the next century had largely faded from view. It locates that critique at a juncture in literary critical history when one set of still dominant trends (historicism in particular) was beginning to yield to others, most of which remain current today. Looking then backwards and forwards in literary critical history from the emergence of the critique, it shows how the problem of literary value has remained problematic throughout. It argues that the continued operation of this problem constituted one of the principal reasons why the critique never gained decisive traction. In exploring the underlying, largely unacknowledged obstacles to the critique, it provides a series of prompts for the following theoretical chapters, in effect illustrating why the book’s preliminary theory of literary valuing is needed. More so than the other chapters, this one spends the majority of its time within the confines of Chaucer studies, and in this way documents some of the critical dynamics among the subfield’s recent scholarly trends.
This is the first of two chapters that together supply the book’s preliminary theory of literary valuing. It names the theory ‘preliminary’ because it provides less a full-blown theory than a kind of schema with various elements developed in more-or-less depth. It aims to develop this schema with enough substance to serve as a workable, flexible conceptual framework for understanding the activity of literary valuing, one that may be in itself of some use to the field of literary studies as well as serve as the ground of the following chapters. The chapter begins by returning to the two approaches to literary value broached in the introduction, assigning them the labels ‘ontological’ and ‘genealogical’. It describes those approaches in more detail, scrutinises their implications and identifies some of what they leave out. It then stakes out an alternative. Following the prompts of Chapter 1, it offers a systematic presentation of its framework for understanding literary valuing. This framework draws upon 1980s precedents but – inspired by the more recent work of Rita Felski – puts aside those theorists’ sceptical dispositions toward literary value. It argues, in a nutshell, that when pragmatically considered, literary value is the effect of an activity coextensive with its conception as a quality, an activity performed by actors within a network (as understood in terms of Actor-Network Theory) that shapes all individual instances, and an activity that is a social fact integral to the phenomenon of the literary and yet neither singular nor necessarily stable in character.
This chapter makes the theoretical debts of the prior one more explicit and expands upon the preliminary theory in a few ways. Most crucially, the chapter explores several implications of a broadly characteristic (though not necessary) feature of literary valuing – its tendency to accrue many various kinds of value, literary and otherwise, without contradiction or incoherence – which the chapter names loose binding. It first makes more explicit its understanding of value as a category, for which it draws on the work of Georg Simmel and later theorists of value in his vein, blending Simmel’s ideas with those from Actor-Network Theory to present a fundamentally differential account of value. Elucidating loose binding in those terms, the chapter then develops a pragmatic framework for understanding how different kinds of value mutually determine one another and, as an illustration of these several points, considers Giovanni Boccaccio’s reflections on the value of poetry in his Trattatello in laude di Dante. The chapter closes by beginning to answer the question of ‘so what’. First, it explores the significance of the book’s preliminary theory by way of clarifying the relation between loose binding and the formalist concept of defamiliarisation. Next, it suggests that the book’s framework, without any substantial changes to our scholarly and pedagogical practices, might serve as the ‘big tent’ that the field of literary studies no longer possesses. It concludes by suggesting a few other ways that the framework might be helpful for literary studies generally.
This chapter tackles one of the most troubling aspects of the problem of literary value – its ideological complicity, as acutely evident in, for example, colonialist, white supremacist and androcentric ideologies – examining that complicity as it is encapsulated in the phenomenon of canonicity. For this purpose it revisits the canon wars, but its main aim is to identify how, and then explore the implications of the fact that, the ineluctability of canonicity and simultaneously its inescapable complicity remain with us. Using as a springboard a pair of epigraphs taken from Henry Louis Gates Jr’s Loose Canons, it draws on the preceding chapters’ preliminary theory of literary valuing to describe several concrete manifestations of how canonicity emerges despite attempts to evade it. Examples include the response from leaders within Chaucer studies to the 2013 MLA proposal to eliminate the MLA Chaucer Division, an English departmental mission statement and a professional periodical piece. The chapter then turns, conversely, to attempts to defend canonicity, showing how the potential for ideological complicity inevitably haunts those efforts. Examples include an attempt to defend Chaucer’s canonicity specifically as well as a more general attempt, by Frank Kermode, to define an ideology-free canonicity as the grounding principle of literary criticism. The chapter concludes with an example of Chaucer pedagogy that suggests how the dilemma of canonicity might become generative rather than merely perplexing, offering a generalisation of this response that might serve as one of literary study’s distinctive disciplinary contributions.
This chapter focuses on specific manifestations of the problem of literary value as they appear in instances of interpretation or reflections on interpretation. Initially using snapshots of Chaucer interpretation as touchstones, the chapter defines its focus in relation to current interpretive practices. It then turns back to Stanley Fish’s 1970s critique of the approach known as stylistics in order to delineate a basic interpretive conundrum, which it describes in relation to the famous hermeneutic circle. The chapter shows that Fish’s critique applies generally and currently to interpretation, and, drawing on the book’s preliminary theory of literary valuing, it argues that this basic conundrum is the flipside of the problem of literary value. Using another example of Chaucer interpretation, it shows how value ascription inaugurates the activity of interpretation, is its outcome and pervades it at each step. The chapter then takes a close, sustained look at the efforts of one celebrated medievalist, Lee Patterson, to come to grips with this very problem in his effort to establish a firm ground for academic literary study, seeking to trace in Patterson’s response the challenges and pitfalls that such efforts may entail. In its final section, the chapter considers a pair of more recent medievalist interpretations that, by means of an activist, transhistorical methodology, point towards a way of leveraging those difficulties as a source of critical insight while keeping at bay entanglements in paradox.
The book’s brief postscript, as its subtitle suggests, reflects on the personal doubts about literary value that have prompted the book and with which it wrestles. In these closing pages, I seek to take my own advice of pursuing a reflexive critical practice and lay my cards on the table, so to speak, in regard to literary value generally and Chaucer’s value in particular. Organised under the two queries of ‘What if literature is not as valuable as the dedication of one’s career to it would seem to presume?’ and ‘Even if the works of Chaucer are “great”, do they and their study do more harm than good?’, the postscript provides personal reflections on my ongoing commitments – if increasingly ambivalent and at times rather limited ones – to literary value in general and Chaucer’s in particular.