Intention and value

James Wood is a literary critic with some decidedly hidebound views about sf and fantasy; but when he’s good, he’s very very good. As witness his two collections of essays, and (for instance) his reviews of Peter Carey’s Theft, J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, and the last volume of the Oxford English Literary History:

There is no greater mark of the gap that separates writers and English departments than the question of value. The very thing that most matters to writers, the first question they ask of a work – is it any good? – is often largely irrelevant to university teachers. Writers are intensely interested in what might be called aesthetic success: they have to be, because in order to create something successful one must learn about other people’s successful creations. To the academy, much of this value-chat looks like, and can indeed be, mere impressionism. Again, theory is not the only culprit. A good deal of postmodern thought is suspicious of the artwork’s claim to coherence, and so is indifferent or hostile to the discussion of its formal success. But conventional, non-theoretical criticism often acts as if questions of value are irrelevant, or canonically settled. To spend one’s time explaining how a text works is not necessarily ever to talk about how well it works, though it might seem that the latter is implicit in the former. Who bothers, while teaching The Portrait of a Lady for the nth time, to explain to a class that it is a beautiful book? But it would be a pardonable exaggeration to say that, for most writers, greedy to learn and emulate, this is the only important question.

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