Why Calculating the Value of Literature Is Impossible

Having now spent a fair amount of time pondering the value of literature, I can confidently say that my initial drive to become an English major (and my continued motivation to stay an English major) is entirely disconnected from any notions of literary value. Indeed, the more I think about this question, the more I struggle to relate it back to my own experiences. There’s a fundamental disconnect between the way I conceive of literature and the way I assign value.

While I would like to avoid getting bogged down in semantics, it’s important to note that this disconnect is caused almost entirely by what I believe to be differing opinions on how to define the term “literature.” Personally, I’m inclined to ascribe that label to any written thing that can provide a reader with some sort of meaning. I can tell that your eyes are narrowing in suspicion—my definition is broad, no doubt, but I think this is important. Let’s see if I can convince you.

In my junior year of college, I got to know a classmate who wrote a literary research paper examining NASA budgets. At the time, my view of literature was… traditional. (Some might use words like “stuffy” and “obnoxious,” but I’ll stick with “traditional.”) Needless to say, I found his approach dubious. But once we got to talking about his project, it became clear that for this student, these dry, technical pieces of paperwork had a wealth of meaning, and within them he was able to identify a narrative worthy of literary scholarship. In short, over the span of a single conversation, he changed my entire perspective on literature, and I came to realize that in the hands of the right reader, any written work can scratch that literary itch.

(Incidentally, at the time of writing, I’m continuing to grapple with whether or not confining the definition of “literature” to only include things that are written is still too narrow. My definition might broaden further still in the future.)

Now, let’s return to my dilemma. If every written thing is literature for someone, then how could I ever assign a value to anything? How could I quantify infinity?

My perspective makes it somewhat challenging to fully wrap my head around certain important discussions within the field. For instance, in reading Paula L. Moya’s wonderful argument on the importance of literary study, I found myself surprised by the relatively narrow scope of the argument. This is not intended to be a criticism—Moya does a fantastic job of justifying the relevance of both literature and its associated scholarship. But at the end of the day, the fact that she has to defend such a nebulous idea at all seems indicative of a failure on the part of the literary community to embrace the scope of its field. In other words, my issue is not with her answer, but the question.

Surprisingly, a writer whose view I identify with quite strongly on the matter is Kathleen Ossip, whose talk about the political power of poetry made me feel a tremendous sense of ideological kinship. (I say “surprisingly” because my opinion on poetry is notoriously unfavorable.) Her point about poetry being treated as though it’s only valuable in the presence of a concrete exigency is truly poignant. As she puts it, “the New York Times never asks ‘Does football matter?’ or ‘Do restaurants matter?’ or ‘Does television matter?'” Though her words are specifically referring to poetry, I believe the same could be said for literature as a whole.

Patrick Rosal echoes this perspective in his story about the adaptability of the poetic form. While others may debate the validity and value of his medium, he illustrates the power of poetry to captivate and inspire. As he talks about that auditorium full of fans of poetry, he illustrates the futility of attempting to ascribe value to something so powerful. In short, the poets seem to have it pretty well figured out, so I think I’ll go hang out with them for a while. Just don’t tell them how much I dislike poetry.

Before I sign off, it occurs to me that I have not yet shared why I became an English major. If it wasn’t anything to do with literary value, then why have I chosen to invest so much time and money into a degree? Well, as boring and disappointing as this answer may be, it’s because I like to read and write fiction. That’s it. I like stories, both as a consumer and a contributor. But my literature is no better than yours, whether you study English or engineering, and don’t let anyone tell you differently.

2 Responses to Why Calculating the Value of Literature Is Impossible

  1. Olivia Howe January 26, 2023 at 6:56 pm #

    Adam, I am commenting on your post for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, your writing style has continued to impress me ever since I met you in Dr. Russell’s ENGL 299 class. I was taken aback by your ability to make complicated topics seem effortless. It is evident that literature (and all that it encompasses) comes naturally to you – so naturally in fact that you struggle to define it. In recalling the instance in which your definition was broadened by a peer in your junior year of college, I am brought to my second reason for commenting on this blog. I immediately recognized that the NASA research paper you referenced belonged to Caden, a shared colleague of ours, who also altered my own perspective of literature. His ability to see the beauty in something so uniform was commendable. It feels almost metaphorical that the notion of literature itself is to thank for expanding our understanding of it.

  2. Bevan January 26, 2023 at 7:05 pm #

    The question you raise about putting a value on literature is a really powerful one. Literature, as an artful, is so driven by subjectivity. Any attempt to put a value would be unfair and unreasonable. It’s interesting to consider the reality, which is that there is a such a clear value put on all literary pieces in out capitalist society. This makes for an interesting dynamic because you have so many articles written in defense of the narrative and poetry, yet often claim that their value is priceless. If that were the case, these articles would never had to have been made in the first place. That being said, I agree that it is impossible to put a price on the written word, despite how many people try (and fail) to.

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