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. —James Wood reviews The Oxford English Literary History, Vol. XII: 1960-2000: The Last of England? by Randall Stevenson —The Slightest Sardine (London Review of Books)
I felt a very odd sense of guilt while teaching a course on media aesthetics this year… it felt like a decadent indulgence to be able to talk about things like beauty, morals, happiness, and pleasure. I recall briefly talking about such topics while discussing The Portrait of Dorian Gray in Stephen Arata’s class at the University of Virginia, but I recall getting upset that nobody was paying attention to the structure of the novel (which went through a revision in which Wilde added whole subplots, presumably to make it more marketable). The tone and philosophy of the added material was so different from that of the rest of the book. Was it better with or without that addition?
While I think the class was annoyed at me for wanting to talk about something so pedestrian, I do recall that he offered a few prompts that encouraged class discussion of the issue, for which I was grateful. Still, when I later asked him for a letter of recommendation, he politely declined. Oh, well — them’s the breaks!
(Which reminds me… I have a letter or two to write for former students.)
The other day, I finished reading The Hobbit to my son for a bedtime story.