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Literary Value & Textual Editing
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Literary Value & Textual Editing
Josephine Guy and Ian Small. The Textual Condition of Nineteenth-Century Literature. New York: Routledge, 2012. 201 pp. $128.00

In their examination of the relationship between the literary value assigned to a work and its “textual condition,” Josephine Guy and Ian Small write against the grain in a turn away from concern for “literariness” and what a work is to an interrogation of the processes and conditions through which it was realized. The authors point out that this “textual turn” has had disciplinary consequences for literary study, endangering its special identity as a field as it becomes increasingly subsumed into cultural history and a concern with modes of discourse in which the aesthetic properties of a work are unimportant, if acknowledged at all. The interrogation of textual conditions at the expense of literary value is traced by Guy and Small to developments in [End Page 391] the theory of text-editing that have called into question the traditional aim of the text-editor to realize the literary value of a work by providing an authoritative single text of it.

Spurred by the work of Jerome McGann and Peter Shillingsburg in particular, a new “postmodernist” approach to editing has challenged the idea of a definitive, stable text and the importance given to authorial intention and agency. In this new view the task of a conscientious editor is not to produce the best text of a given work—that is, the text that most effectively communicates its literary value and the author’s intentions—but rather to reproduce for the reader as fully as possible the process of revision and its contexts that went into the dynamic act of literary creativity. At the same time the development of new computing resources such as hypertext software has allowed editors to realize this polymorphic ideal of editing by producing all available versions of a work, leaving the traditional editorial function of assigning value in the judgment of the reader. Guy and Small suggest that this emphasis on process and a multiplicity of texts, rather than the text, undermines any concept of the work itself, and it is here that they intervene with a crucial question. “Can we meaningfully attribute value to a process,” they ask, “in the absence of the product which is their outcome?”

With this note of caution about the “textual turn,” and in the belief that textual scholarship cannot and should not evade questions of literary value, they concede that “it does not on its own possess the means to answer those questions.” What textual scholarship can do—and this will strike some readers as a much more modest, less significant mission—is “to remind us of how insistently the concept of value is at the centre of both literary enquiry and what constitutes literary creativity.” I understand the authors to mean, in effect, that the responsibility of textual scholars is to raise fundamental questions of literary value that necessarily they lack the means to resolve. It remains unclear in their argument who does have the ability or authority to make these judgments about literary value and how precisely such judgments could be enabled or assisted by the work of textual scholarship. Indeed the strongest impression left by Guy and Small’s book, for me at least, is that the best, most interesting textual scholarship may complicate questions of value to such a degree as to make them even more unanswerable than ever. If so, the chasm dividing “postmodern” editing from the value-driven view of textual scholarship advocated by the authors is reduced in one respect at least—that is, neither approach will resolve questions of literary value, the difference being that the former [End Page 392] has little or no interest in doing so while the latter has the interest but lacks the means. But it is important to note that the textual scholarship advocated by Guy and Small will repeatedly direct our attention to questions of value and their centrality to creative endeavor, even if it cannot provide final answers.

The authors further examine the tension between texts on one hand and an “ideal” of the literary work on the other...