In the March issue of Harper’s, Arthur Krystal offers a defense of excellence in literature. One does not need to believe, he writes, in an unchanging category of Great Books to argue that some books are better than others:
Here’s the trick, if that’s the right word: one may regard the canon as a convenient fiction, shaped in part by the material conditions under which writing is produced and consumed, while simultaneously recognizing the validity of hierarchical thinking and aesthetic criteria. Writers may not be able to “escape from contingency,” as the new historicists used to say, but those sensitive to their prisons can transform the walls that confine them — a transformation that requires an awareness of the great poets and novelists who preceded them. Artists look backward in order to move forward. Which is why hierarchical rankings of writers are as natural as those teeming lists of great boxers, tenors, composers, and cabinetmakers. The canon may be unfair and its proponents self-serving, but the fact that there is no set-in-stone syllabus or sacred inventory of Great Books does not mean there are no great books.
The idea that “hierarchical rankings” are natural is also worth highlighting. The inescapability of hierarchies can even be seen in the post-structuralist critique of them in which the old hierarchies (West over East, for example, or “presence” over “absence”) are replaced by one hierarchy to rule them all: anti-hierarchy over hierarchy.
The problem is not so much the contradiction of this critique, which has been noted a thousand times (though it is still a problem), but the dogmatism of approaching literary works in light of this one idea alone, style be damned. It has done a good deal of damage to reading, the study of books, and contemporary literature. Of course, ideology and aesthetics cannot always be entirely disentangled (if ever), but do they need to be for me to take into account one more than the other?