Literary Standards Analysis

The Issue

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What is literature, what is not literature, and who decides are hard to define. Few critics make serious attempts at defining what literature is; few, however, have resisted the temptation of constructing a set of standards by which literature may be judged as superior or inferior; in fact, whole academic disciplines and degrees are based on the study of literary theory and criticism. The study of literature entails examination of a recognized body of “literary” works not only in their historical context but also as successful or unsuccessful works of art in themselves. One may therefore argue that standards for literature exist not only to define what literature is—and what good literature is—but also to exclude forms of literature that the critic deems unworthy. Such judgments are likely to generate controversy. Moreover, literary standards shift with the times; many works have risen and fallen in critical estimation, sometimes being considered nonliterary during periods in which critics do not favor the works, and sometimes being “rediscovered” long after they were written when social and political attitudes favor them.

The Canon

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Among academics, literary criticism emerged at the forefront of the debate with arguments about the “canon”—that is, the official list of great works that students study. Publications such as Mortimer J. Adler’s The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon of the Great Books of the Western World (1952), coupled with a lack of access to the literatures of other cultures, have given the impression that “greatness” is restricted to a limited number of works judged by Eurocentric standards. The authors of the canon, as set forth in the twentieth century, are overwhelmingly white and male—a fact that implicitly devalues works by women and people of color. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of Harvard University, argues that a truly adequate liberal education requires reckoning the “comparable eloquence of the African, the Asian and the Middle Eastern traditions.” Students need a global perspective and a critical understanding of their total culture, he argues.

On the other hand, defenders of the canon, such as Irving Howe and John Searles, argue that reduced emphasis on the great ideas of Western civilization results in, and is partly responsible for, the crisis that already exists in the American educational system. According to this view, declining test scores and rising dropout rates are the outgrowth of too much curricular experimentation in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Education based on a disciplined, acknowledged “common core” of knowledge is needed to reverse these trends. Similar ideas are echoed in books by E. D. Hirsch (Cultural Literacy, 1987), Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind, 1987), and Harold Bloom (The Western Canon, 1994).

Multicultural Standards

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In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the concept of multiculturalism was developed by activist members of cultural minorities to redress what was seen as a continuing pattern of unjust exclusion in a number of areas, including publication of marginalized groups’ literary works and, by implication, their self-expression. Proponents take a broad approach to inclusiveness that embraces members of various marginalized groups, such as African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, women, gays, and people with disabilities.

In literature, the multicultural movement has resulted in two significant trends in the dissemination of ideas, both at the educational level and, through publishing, at the consumer level. First, public schools—previously seen as agents of Americanization (especially when confronted with the huge immigrant influx of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s)—have had to meet the educational needs of desegregated African Americans and, more recently, of new immigrants from Latin America and Asia. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, colleges and universities established ethnic studies and women’s studies programs, inspiring the public school system to follow suit. A broad range of writings were suddenly legitimated as objects of scholarly inquiry, including slave narratives, autobiographies, and women’s journals. Works formerly considered minor or obscure—such as Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773,...

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Implications for Identity

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The history of literature, in its formal development and in the evolution and variety of its subject matter, goes hand in hand with the history of literary standards. Works that are critical of established social institutions or that emanate from oppressed groups are often denied, at least initially, the status of literature. Before Wheatley’s poems could be published, for example, she had to be “examined” by eighteen of Boston’s most prestigious male minds, who signed a document attesting the authenticity of her work—so doubtful were her “patrons” that she had been capable of producing the neoclassical verses in the collection. Other works, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852), undergo radical shifts in assessment. Appearing at the height of abolitionist fervor, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was widely read and, in the eyes of its author and others, successful in upholding the literary standards of its day: It was accurate in factual detail, appealed to the emotions, and moved the public to activism. By the standard of the 1960’s generation, however, Stowe’s novel was attacked for its sentimentality. James Baldwin also criticized the character Uncle Tom as a symbol of the submissiveness whites expect of blacks, coining a hateful epithet. Still other works have undergone the opposite shift in critical assessment. For example, the heroine of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, who in 1899...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Aristotle. The “Poetics” of Aristotle. Translated by Preston H. Epps. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967. An excellent starting place, setting the pattern for attempts by critics to establish literary standards.

Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1994. Revisits and supports the theory of literary standards and of the canon, with appendices providing Bloom’s own list, organized by four great ages of Western literature.

Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961. A landmark work of the so-called Chicago School or of Neo-Aristotelian criticism, which seeks to establish systematic study of literature at the level of genre rather than exclusively at the level of the individual work.

Brooks, Cleanth, and Robert Penn Warren. The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1947. A definitive example of the New Criticism, concentrating on the text of the work and avoiding discussion of such contextual issues as social history and the author’s life.

Eliot, T. S. What Is a Classic? New York: Haskell House, 1944. An attempt to define a classic work.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957. Attempts definitions of various genres of literature—a key work of Neo-Aristotelian criticism.

Showalter, Elaine, ed., The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985. An excellent starting place in the study of feminist literary theory.

Tompkins, Jane, ed. Reader-Response Criticism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980. Presents reader-response theory, which argues for the subjectivity of textual interpretation, and, by extension, the subjectivity of the literary standards.

Wellek, René, and Austin Warren. Theory of Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1949. Attempts to define the difference between literature and nonliterature, arguing that literature is what defeats habits of thought and feeling, reawakening one’s perception.