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New Left Review I/142, November-December 1983


Terry Eagleton and Peter Fuller

The Question of Value: A Discussion

Terry Eagleton: Let me begin with what strikes me as an interesting fact about the so-called ‘canon’ of literature, which has recently generated so much debate [*] This is an edited transcript of a meeting called ‘The Question of Value’ which was held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on 14 June 1983. It was chaired by Lisa Appignanesi, director of seminars at the ica, and formed part of the series: Dream Street: Aspects of Popular Culture. . I take ‘canonical’ works to be in some sense works of value; but the truth is that if you write one such work of value, then by the laws of the canon all the rest of your works make it into the canon too. Wordsworth’s poems celebrating capital punishment are sucked into the canon in the wake of The Prelude. What this means is that at any given point the literary canon contains an enormous amount of rubbish. I mean rubbish even in terms of the canon’s own modes of evaluation, let alone in any other terms. Nobody I know is prepared to argue that Lem is unquestionably inferior to Thomas Love Beddoes, but because Lem happens to write in what is currently ranked as a subordinate genre, he doesn’t make it into the canon and Beddoes, who writes in a currently consecrated genre, does. The canon, in other words, makes no kind of sense even in its own terms.

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