Introduction: On Literary Value
In the last decade of the twentieth century Ph.D. candidates in the English Depart- ment of Brandeis University trained one another in avoiding value judgments. This unanimously accepted commandment kept the temperature of our debates at a steady and controllable level. All along most of our choices and analytical methods were guided by an unnamed and unmentionable sense of what is of relative worth, merit, interest, or importance, precisely, what is of value to each of us personally and what might be of value to others, or even to all people universally. We did not use the words “classic” or “masterpiece,” and our professors did not offer survey courses in literary history. The canon of literature, if it still perhaps existed, was of no consequence to fearless explorers of marginal and forgotten literary phenomena. And so we studied dramas of Shakespeare’s lesser known contemporaries, com- pared prose fiction with film fiction, or read Yeats’s and Rilke’s poetry alongside Freud’s psychoanalysis and Rodin’s art. One of the most memorable courses was devoted to early American bestsellers, exactly half of them written by women and some by representatives of ethnic minorities. The list of past bestsellers was also a kind of canon, in which the principle of some vague immeasurable intrinsic value was replaced with the criterion of calculable pecuniary value. Reading lists still needed to be constructed (though on principles denying can- onicity), but we avoided debates about essential value because the influx of social, political, and cultural thought into literary...
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