After characterizing the two general approaches to literary value most often taken in Anglo-American treatments of the topic as either ontological (which emphasize what literary value is) or genealogical (which emphasize how literary value is made), this article defines and elucidates an alternative, complementary, pragmatic approach. This approach—taking as its basis the evident, pervasive valuing of literature that occurs both inside and outside the academy and drawing on the actor-network-theory of Bruno Latour—argues that acts of ascribing value are necessary for any social recognition of the literary, and that these acts occur distributed across a network of human and nonhuman valuing agents that extends indefinitely in time and space. It contends that literary value, in pragmatic practice, emerges through activities of mediation among these agents and explains how this view does not preclude ontological or genealogical accounts of value but is not reducible to them. The article next explores the implications of the characteristic looseness in an agent’s ascription of literary value, a characteristic that results in literary value often both manifestly pendant on, and in competition with, value of other kinds. In its conclusion, the article suggests how its approach to literary value may function as a shared conceptual platform for the diverse range of projects that today occur under the umbrella term of literary study, thereby helping to restore some conceptual coherence to the field.


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pp. 335-355
Launched on MUSE
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