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Home » Big Questions » Elitist Approaches to Great Literature as Conflicting with Cultural and Class Issues

Elitist Approaches to Great Literature as Conflicting with Cultural and Class Issues

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January 2016
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I love all my books on my bookshelves. I love my compete set of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels, my New York Edition of Henry James’s complete works, my Oxford Standard Editions, my Classics Club set. All my wonderful canonical authors of Great Literature. Here I am sitting in my big stuffy leather chair just looking at my books and longing for time to read. But when I really think things through, sometimes, not often, but sometimes I get that guilty feeling that my precious privilege just might be problematic.

I’m writing about what it means to live a Literary Life and especially the last few days about ways to think about the Great Literature that means so much to us. And here’s a stickler of a question that never goes away.

Could a person from an underprivileged class, tribe, whatever, merely by sheer genius, exert himself or herself and produce Great Literature independent of any cultural or class considerations?

Well, that’s a problem when it comes to deciding who the Major Writers are and what Great Literature is. I mean, what criteria is used to decide if a certain poem or novel is great? (I use the passive voice deliberately.) By any chance is the criteria used to determine greatness criteria that supports the historical white male, privileged class power structure? If so, what are the implications?

Oh boy. We could go on and on, but these are important questions and important issues for anybody living a Literary Life. And, really, not just for reading Major British, Continental, or American writers from the past.

Think about it. Who are considered the great artists of today in the US, say, and in the world? Who says? Who do these great contemporary artists represent and what values do they represent? Now be careful. Don’t jump to conclusions that because the artists we celebrate dress far differently onstage or onscreen than anybody else, or that because so many seem utterly out of middle-class conformity, that somehow they do not mirror the values of the middle class and the standard culture in which they perform.

Again, think about it. Can an artist who does not represent the power class today be considered great? Really? Ok, name your famous, great, celebrity artist who deeply opposes your class’s values. I mean, I would assume that greatness in any field requires nonconformity, nonacceptance of prevailing values to be great (among many other things). Else, what’s to be great?

Or, consider: How do we (as members of the power class) treat those occasional artists who do not represent our class today? For example, how does Fox News treat filmmakers like Michael Moore or Oliver Stone? What hip hop artists are acceptable? Actually, not just Fox, but how do any of the major media treat any poet? Any novelist who can’t hit the New York Times Bestseller list?

Ah, my books. What are your most prized books on your shelves? What’s your reaction to these questions I have put out there? Write it in the comment box. Meanwhile, stay tuned Saturday for the next post in this series on Ways to Approach Great Literature.



  1. Brian Rusher says:

    Dr. Varner,

    I have recently been asking myself similar questions, and perhaps this is why a brief internet search has lead me to the blog of my former professor.

    Personally, I have come to view the very act of reading as a revolutionary act. When I read literature–great literature–my sense of self and value are increased. Perhaps only incrementally, but over time, reading great literature grants me a sense of worth I didn’t previously possess. I realized this only recently–the first time I actually read Moby Dick from start to finish (he admitted shamefully). I see myself worthy of representation in the courts, or deserving of living wages, or deserving of access to medical care.

    The power structure devalues great literature. It does not want people reading at all, let alone wrestling with Shakespeare, Woolf, or Faulkner. It devalues the notion of “leisure” time. If you’re not making money or spending money, then in the eyes of the power structure, you have no worth. I believe that a literary life subverts a culture that minimizes the human to what she or he can produce or consume because it demands that a person have “leisure” time–the time to read great literature.



    • Paul Varner says:

      Hello Brian
      I think your comments are quite insightful. I hope other readers will chime in. Keep reading my blog because these are the kinds of ideas I plan on addressing and hopefully stir up some discussion.

      Great to hear from you. It’s been awhile.


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