American Literature, American Culture

By Gordon Hutner | Go to book overview

Jane Tompkins

"But Is It Any Good?": The Institutionalization of Literary Value

People often object, when presented with the arguments I have made above, that while one may affirm the power or centrality of a novel on the grounds that it intersects with widely-held beliefs and grapples with pressing social problems, that affirmation does not prove anything one way or another about the literary value of the text, and does nothing to guarantee its status as a work of art. This objection seems particularly trenchant in the present context because while it grants the validity of my argument on one level and even suggests that the point is obvious--of course best-sellers reflect the concerns of the passing moment--it denies the relevance of the argument to literary criticism. For criticism, the objection goes, concerns itself with the specifically literary features of American writing. And what distinguishes a work as literature is the way it separates itself from transitory issues of the kind I have been discussing--revolution ( Brockden Brown), consolidation ( Cooper), revival ( Warner), and abolition ( Stowe). The fact that a work engages such issues, in this view, is an index not of its greatness, but of its limitation; the more directly it engages purely local and temporal concerns, the less literary it will be, not only because it is captive to the fluctuations of history, but also because in its attempt to mold public opinion it is closer to propaganda than to art, and hence furnishes material for the historian rather than the literary critic.

The objection, as I have phrased it, is never put in exactly this way, but usually takes the form of a question like: but are these works really any good? or, what about the literary value of Uncle Tom's Cabin? or, do you really want to defend Warner's language? These questions imply that the standards of judgment to which they refer are not themselves challengeable, but are taken for granted among qualified readers. "You and I know what a good novel is," the objection implies, "and we both know that these novels fall outside that category." But the notion of good literature that the question invokes is precisely what we are arguing about. That tacit sense of what is "good" cannot be used to determine the value of these novels because literary value is the point at issue. At this juncture, people will frequently attempt to settle the question empirically by pointing to one or another indisputably "great" work, such as Moby-Dick or The Scarlet Letter, and asking whether The Wide, Wide World is as good as that.

But the issue cannot be settled by invoking apparently unquestionable examples of literary excellence such as these as a basis of comparison, because these texts already represent one position in the debate they are being called upon to decide. That is, their value, their identity, and their constituent features have been made available for description by the very modes of perception and evaluation that I am challenging. It is not from any neutral space that we have learned to see the epistemological subtleties of Melville or Hawthorne's psychological acuity. Those characteristics have been made available by critical strategies that have not always been respectable, but had to be explained, illustrated, and argued for (as I am arguing now) against other critical assumptions embodied in other masterpieces that seemed just as invincible, just as unquestionably excellent as these now do. Such strategies do not remain stable and do not emerge in isolation, but are forged in the context of revolutions, revivals, periods of consolidation or reform--in short, in the

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"But Is It Any Good?" from Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction by Jane Tompkins . Copyright 1989 by Oxford University Press. Reprinted by permission.

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