Not Talking About Literary Merit

This past week, I asked my students whether Harry Potter should be taught in literature classes, and if so, why.* They were confident arguing that its commercial successes made it culturally relevant but less sure of themselves when it came to arguing about its value as literature. “What,” one student asked, “would literary merit mean, anyway?”paradise lost resort

It was only after he asked it that I realized just how little I had prepared them to answer it.

One of the sentences that I regularly flag in student writing praises the greatness of the author they’re analyzing. A promising observation about the text’s form or imagery will peter out into a claim that “So-and-so’s mastery of (whatever) is what makes him one of the greatest poets of all time.” Analysis gives way to praise.

As a result, I’ve been trying to pay attention to the ways that I talk about literary merit in the classroom. What I’ve noticed is that I (and my professors) use terms of value to guide our attention to particular formal devices, image patterns, or concepts: I’ll praise Shakespeare’s use of diction to distinguish characters, or Milton’s grammatical effects, or the tension between levels of allegory in Spenser. Value justifies the time spent to notice these effects.

It’s a good trick. Students like being told that what they’re studying (and the way they’re studying) is important. But I need to think more about the way these little moments of praise build into an implicit account of literary merit that I don’t believe. I hope to be an advocate for enthusiasm, for the pleasures of close attention, and for learning how any text is put together. But does the rhetoric of praise pull in another direction, towards a defense of that small canon that is the syllabus? What is the account of literary merit that I offer when I try not to articulate one?

In the discussion of Harry Potter that ensued, I heard a pair of opposed values: the immediate pleasure of the text and the complexity that rewards “academic” reading.

I think I need to explore more deliberate ways to muddle the two, to teach Paradise Lost as beach read and the pleasures of close-reading. Any ideas?

* I’m teaching Children’s Literature this semester, so this is not as much of a non sequitur as it might seem.