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Monday, 31 October 2016

What Is A Worthy Text?

From my other blog: 13th July 2015

Today in my first week of uni for trimester two, we looked at the English Education VCE text list. One idea that was presented is that texts for selection must be found: 'worthy'. Or else:

"-have literary merit and be worthy of close study
-be an excellent example of form and genre
- sustain intensive study, raising interesting issues and providing challenging ideas 
- be appropriate for both male and female students 
- be appropriate for the age and development of students and, in that context, reflect current community standards and expectations."

I further ran into this Stephen Fry quote on the worth or value of particular texts today: “I will defend the absolute value of Mozart over Miley Cyrus, of course I will, but we should be wary of false dichotomies. You do not have to choose between one or the other. You can have both. The human cultural jungle should be as varied and plural as the Amazonian rainforest. We are all richer for biodiversity. We may decide that a puma is worth more to us than a caterpillar, but surely we can agree that the habitat is all the better for being able to sustain each.”

This is in essence the problem with considering certain texts to be worthy - it inevitably creates a dichotomy in which other texts are not. And texts encompass a whole range of media: invariably anything you can read and analyse with your eyes from recipes, to films, to t-shirts become a text. Who am I as a critic to say that one individual may derive less value from Twilight or a Nickleback t-shirt than I do from Great Expectations and a dinner suit? 

Here we encounter a tricky literary idea. One further expounded upon by a discussion of critical literacy. Critical literacy being the analysis of the ideas that lie behind language and texts. The idea that language works to shape reality and promote particular relations of power. Texts may be constructed (photographs are a great example) as one particular snapshot that the author wishes to convey and so they speak through as much as what is being left out as what is being left in. A film is an edited work with sound (or lack of it), VFX or practical effects, different camera angles and a whole array of directorial decisions in how the scenes are arranged to tell the story. A novel like a poem or short story uses 

So what provides a text worth? What makes it worthy? Here I think you must take into account the cultural and social context in which the text is found. If we talk about clothing as text then it is not appropriate for someone to wear the aforementioned Nickleback tee in a fine dining establishment. Much as it would be odd and jarring for a dinner suit to be worn to a rock concert. But each text in their corresponding environment is worthy. 

This to me is most likely what the VCE guidelines are aiming to establish: the notion of worth across cultures, genres and individuals. And it is here where critics of films and novels must be able to consider whether the text has worth outside of the environment of their own personal preferences. Does the text promote morals which are healthy to a wider audience? Is it a great example of its format? Is it well written? I love The Hunger Games but were I to decide upon a text better exemplifying its themes then I would suggest any of Brave New World, 1984 or Fahrenheit 451. Yet were I to pick out what The Hunger Games is worth I would suggest it is a valuable example of writing with pace, imagination and of giving a form of entertainment which challenges as much as entertains. It may not have the same worth in one context but it may have greater worth in another. 

This to me is what a worthy text should be about: how worthy is a text across multiple contexts? And I believe critics should judge texts on both levels: on worth within its own context (genre etc.) and worth in other contexts.