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  • Criticism, Valuation, and Useful Purpose
  • Philip Smallwood (bio)

Defining, and attempting to answer, “the question of value” is embraced by the larger problem of criticism’s definition; and many critics have cast their views on valuation, or evaluation (a term sometimes used interchangeably with it), 1 in a general statement on the nature and function of criticism. “Criticism,” writes I. A. Richards, “is the endeavour to discriminate between experiences and to evaluate them.” 2 For F. R. Leavis (one of the single most controversial critics operating within the sphere of debate about criticism and value), “You can’t discuss ‘valuation’ intelligently except in a general account of the nature of criticism.” 3 Other major critics in the past have seen the various operations contained in the valuing or evaluation of literature as an unavoidable concomitant of criticism’s essential nature: “Judgement is forced upon us by experience. He that reads many books must compare one opinion or one style with another; and when he compares, must necessarily distinguish, reject, and prefer.” 4 Such views are supported by the analyses of modern aestheticians such as E. D. Hirsch, who writes in post-Kantian terms of the necessity of valuation in literary judgments and that “value judgments are . . . inherent in literary description.” 5 Terry Eagleton meanwhile has pointed to the respect in which all statements, even those that seem to convey simple matters of fact, can be construed as “value-judgements”: 6 it is sometimes said that the critic “cannot but evaluate,” 7 or even that “to exist is to evaluate.” 8 Proscribing valuation—in the sense of banning the right to prefer—may in its turn be portrayed as simply stupid or dull, as Robert Graves famously relates: “I understand, Mr Graves, that the essays which you write for your English tutor are, shall I say, a trifle temperamental. It appears, indeed, that you prefer some authors to others.” 9

It is in the nature of the situation of criticism that we should not expect the arguments used to defend or promote evaluative criticism to be counteracted in any especially coherent way by the arguments used to insist that criticism is (or should be) value-neutral; that the valuation of literary works should not be seen as criticism’s definition. Critical valuation is attacked and disputed on all sorts of grounds, sometimes by the same critics who at other moments give the appearance of finding it inevitable, a necessary feature of all statements. It is for this reason [End Page 711] sometimes hard to discern whether objectors to evaluative criticism object absolutely to the fact that criticism may evaluate; or whether they are merely repudiating some of the kinds of evaluation it is possible to find in certain evaluative critics—Johnson, Arnold, or Leavis for example. 10 There may be only a pragmatic objection (itself an expression of an evaluator’s instinct) against the style conferred on criticism generally by critics they disagree with or dislike on other grounds. Anti-evaluative sentiment can be part of a war on some of the more outspoken or dogmatic evaluations within the critical tradition; ones that are perceived to evaluate unfairly, or grossly, or where critics allow their personal feelings to run riot. The letters of D. H. Lawrence contain much personal evaluation of this kind—“I hate Strindberg”; “I like Wells”; “I don’t like Dostoievsky,” 11 and so forth. One response to such statements is part of the ethical case against evaluation and is that the critic is telling us more about himself than we want to know.

On another level, valuation in criticism may be rejected for what seem to be more fundamental reasons—as for example those given by critics like Frye or Barthes who hold that criticism should be (and really at bottom is) a science and therefore only concerned with the objective treatment of objectively verifiable phenomena within a formal system. 12 Here, too, personal feelings of the kind that Lawrence expresses do not or should not come into the picture. Another significant strand of anti-evaluative sentiment can be discovered among those who find evaluation in its discriminatory aspect unacceptable on political or social grounds, or ideologically...

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pp. 711-722
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