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Working-Class Writing and the Use Value of the Literary

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


Formal preoccupations, which is to say specifically literary concerns, appear in small literatures only in a second phase, when an initial stock of literary resources has been accumulated and the first international artists find themselves in a position to challenge the aesthetic assumptions associated with realism and to exploit the revolutionary advances achieved at the Greenwich meridian.

—Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters

“In our country culture has become so complex, this complexity is reflected in our literature. It takes a certain level of education to understand our novelists. The ordinary man cannot understand them …” … And she reeled off a list of authors, smiling smugly. It never occurred to her that these authors had ceased to be of any value whatsoever to their society—or was it really true that an extreme height of culture and the incomprehensible went hand in hand?

—Bessie Head, A Question of Power (first ellipsis in orig.)

ON WHAT BASIS ARE SELECT TRADITIONS OF LITERARY INTERNATIONALISM RECOGNIZED AS WORLD LITERATURE AND OTHERS DEEMED MERELY historical, relics of nostalgic Marxism or of resolved debates on aesthetics and politics? According to recent influential formulations, world literature is writing that in original or translated form circulates outside the author's country of origin. But what of traditions of literary internationalism, like those of working-class writing, that reverse and displace practical, utilitarian propositions to ask, instead, in more abstract terms, what is the use value of the literary? Bessie Head's A Question of Power poses a challenge to practical definitions. What of literary texts that have global currency but aren't of “any value whatsoever to their society”?

Theories and Methodologies
Copyright © 2012 by The Modern Language Association of America

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