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Great Literature and Its Cultural Contexts

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Ok, it seems that nobody today wants to be considered elitist in our culture, as I have been writing about in my recent posts on Ways to Approach Great Literature. For many readers, Cultural Study is an antidote to elitism.

Here, for example, we would consider recent Great Writers of English Literature and their works in order to see how the culture of 19th and 20th century Great Britain formed those writers and works and how those writers through their works reflected their culture.

A basic assumption of Cultural Studies is that we all are products of the dominant culture. A few of us may be perceptive enough to know that and to react against it, but only of few can ever truly separate themselves from the power culture—even when we might think we have done so. Except, of course, those invisible people all around us who are rejected from the power culture.

Or, to ask a question from the last post again, Do the desperately poor from the Third World, for example, create art? Can that art ever possibly be considered great? Most readers would say no simply because the creation of art requires some measure of leisure.

So, one way to approach the Major British Writers and all the Great Writers is to notice what values they assume in their Great Literature. How do their values support the privileged class? When do they subvert the assumptions of power and privilege? What writers are mouthpieces of the power class and what writers countermand the assumptions of power?

In other words, we can see how these writers respond to their culture. Because they are distant from us much will be transparent. Perhaps, then, we can turn to our own culture and begin to see how it works as well.

This approach, however, presents as many problems, if not more, as elitist approaches. Nevertheless, cultural studies in its many guises, such as Postcolonial, Feminist, Gender, Popular Culture studies, dominate current academic debates in literature and English departments in the U.S. and especially in the U.K. Thus, what I have been talking about in this very short post is merely a blurb for the complex but favored Way to Approach Great Literature (as well as less than great literature). Preeminent among those problems of cultural studies is that literature no longer is read for its own artistic value but is seen as valuable primarily as artifacts for studying culture, then and now. In fact, most cultural critics would not separate Great Literature from other literature, the distinction between High Culture and Low Culture no longer being considered valid in any of the arts.

What do you think? Leave comments in the box below and be sure to keep reading these posts already posted on Ways to Approach Great Literature. Stay tuned for more next Thursday.

 

More Problems with Elitist Approaches to Great Literature

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Here I am rubbing my fingers across the fine red mahogany of my new bookshelf Jeanine bought me for our anniversary and looking at and smelling the fine leather bindings of my precious books written by the greatest authors of our civilization. I feel very smug right now.

What have we been talking about on this blog? Oh, yes. Different attitudes toward and approaches to Great Literature. Those of us privileged enough to lead a Literary Life are pretty special. Just think about what other people are like. Poor souls.

But wait. Do we really want to be perceived as elitists, as literary snobs? Are we really comfortable assuming we know who is great and what works matter? Just consider for a minute: who decides what constitutes the Great Literature that these Major Writers supposedly produced? Is there such a thing as Great Literature that transcends all culture, all gender or racial concerns, a literature that by independent, universal, timeless standards is merely great?

What are some implications for those of us who would answer yes to all of the above?

If you are reading The Literary Blog for the first time you must notice that I am mainly asking questions and rarely giving any kind of answers. But I guess that’s always been my approach to any issue. I’m pretty suspicious of questions that have easy answers. Obviously there are those kinds of questions in life. But the Big Questions about life, about art, about humanity, about politics generally don’t have easy answers.

So let’s talk. Post your reactions to these questions in the Comments box. Then engage with each other is robust discussion. There’s where truth lies.

Stay tuned for Thursday’s post and let’s keep asking questions.

Problems with Elitist Approaches to Great Literature

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Yes, I am going to spend the rest of my Literary Life reading only the greatest writers and only the greatest literary works. Ok, but stop and ask yourself: just who decides who the major writers of Western Civilization are and what makes them so “major?”

Does it matter that virtually all the major British, American, and Continental writers usually accepted in the Canon of Great Writers are white males from the middle to upper class in their countries? Just for the sake of this blog post today let’s just consider British writers.

Does it matter to you that nearly all the usual major British Writers were part of the privileged class, the class in power. We hear nothing about the classes out of power, the classes oppressed by these major British writers. Almost all the major British Writers were male. The values assumed in all their writings were gender specific, male values—hence, anti-female values. Does that matter? When a female writer is accepted as a Major British Writer, she tends merely to reflect male values. (After all, it was the males who allowed her to become a Major British Writer.)

Questions, questions. What do you think? Let us all know your thoughts in the comments box.

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