Friday, July 27, 2012

Innovation and Excellence: Pound’s Typology

I posted this at The Valve in October of 2008 back in the days when people were worried about whether or not academic literary criticism should be more concerned about evaluating the quality of literary works. Some such classification would also apply, not only to other artistic realms, but to non-artistic fields.

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Ezra Pound, A B C of Reading, New York: New Directions, 1960. From Chapter 2, pp. 39-40:
When you start searching for ‘pure elements’ in literature you will find that literature has been created by the following classes of persons:

1 Inventors. Men who found a new process, or whose extant work gives us the first known example of a process.

2 The masters. Men who combined a number of such processes, and who used them as well as or better than the inventors.

3 The diluters. Men who came after the first two kinds of writer, and couldn’t do the job quite as well.

4 Good writers without salient qualities. Men who are fortunate enough to be born when the literature of a given country is in good working order, or when some particular branch of writing is ‘healthy’. ...

5 Writers of belles-lettres. That is, men who didn’t really invent anything, but who specialized in some particular part of writing, who couldn’t be considered as ‘great men’ or as authors who were trying to give a complete presentation of life, or of their epoch.

6 The starters of crazes.

Until the reader knows the first two categories he will never be able ‘to see the wood for the trees.’ He may know what he ‘likes’. He may be a ‘compleat book-lover’, with a large library ... but he will never be able to sort out what he knows or to estimate the value of one book in relation to others, and he will be more confused and even less able to make up his mind about a book where a new author is ‘breaking with convention’ than to form an opinion about a book eighty or a hundred years old.
I’ve never really thought these categories through, though I suspect that they probably need some revision. It’s not clear to me, for example, just what the rank ordering means and whether or not such a simple ordering is appropriate. Perhaps we only need a partial ordering.

Were I to think this through, it would be with an eye to cultural process: Do these different classes of writer—or, by generalization, any expressive creator—play distinctly different roles in the creating and dissemination of literature? If so, what are those roles?

I think Pound’s comments about recognizing new work of high, if unconventional, quality are particularly important now, given that we live in a time of cultural flux. If your mind is filled with simple notions and cheap talk, then you’re just going to make things even more difficult for those trying to create new expressive forms.

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