RICK RYLANCE’S Literature and the Public Good is one of the volumes published in Oxford University Press’s ‘The Literary Agenda’ series, which pledges to supply ‘short polemical monograph[s]’ (viii). Rylance’s book energetically fulfils this promise, arguing compellingly that ‘[l]iterature … is among the greatest of assets which we enjoy and which we depreciate at our peril. It is a public good and a gift to the world’ (6). Rylance makes the case for literature as a ‘public good’ in multiple different, yet overlapping, areas: the economic, personal, and social. In the chapter entitled ‘Money’, for example, he points out that the literary industry generates ‘labour and economic value’ (89). In the book’s final chapter, he pursues a very different line of argument: that literature increases empathy and thereby ‘enhances the capabilities that make us human and enable our societies to function’ (199). Thus, by the end of the volume, he has asserted literature’s good from every conceivable angle. For each of the areas that Rylance examines, he makes his claims for literature convincingly and comprehensively. In the ‘Money’ chapter, an avalanche of statistical evidence leaves the reader in no doubt that literature serves an economic purpose, and the chapter entitled ‘The Power of Empathy’ is dense with the results of scientific and sociological studies asserting literature’s emotional and relational benefits. Rylance does not merely quote this evidence, however, but also contextualizes it. In the chapter on money, both by comparing the situation in the UK to the one in France (101) and by carefully explaining anomalies in the data caused, for example, by runaway successes such as Fifty Shades of Grey (102), he makes the reader feel that he has a firm grasp of his facts. Thus, Literature and the Public Good is a powerful manifesto. One feels that it would do much good were it to be placed in the hands of government officials contemplating cuts to funding for the arts and the humanities. Indeed, for the most part, this seems to be the audience at which it is primarily aimed: it speaks the language of politics and of economics, providing the forceful assertions and corresponding evidence that these realms demand. This is not wholly the case, however. Rylance states in his opening chapter that he does not wish the book solely to ‘render the texture of current debate’ but aims for it also to explore the ‘unresolved complexity of reasoning in some of the argument’ (6–7). In the chapter on ‘The Power of Empathy’, for example, Rylance admits on various occasions that literature’s ability to provide the ‘acquisition of openness of judgment’ is far from guaranteed (189). He concedes that ‘stories might suit existing prejudices’ and that ‘[c]ommunities … use stories as instruments of abuse and manipulation as well as discovery and exploration’ (188). He also declares that ‘[o]f course reading is not always liberating’ (178). There are glimpses within the book of a situation that is yet more complex than its main line of argument allows. This complexity certainly remains ‘unresolved’—these statements function as asides to Rylance’s claims and in no way affect his overall conclusion, which remains firm in its assertion that literature is, due to its empathy-enhancing qualities, a public good. Thus, Rylance lays out a ‘complexity of reasoning’ and then leaves the reader to grapple with its consequences. (This is perhaps apt given that, according to one study, the more ‘difficult’ a work of literature, the greater the benefit it offers in terms of a person’s emotional and empathetic development (192)). The dilemma is most acute in the ‘Money’ chapter. Here, as I have already mentioned, Rylance presents literature’s economic benefits. Having done so, however, he then, in the second half of his chapter, pursues a very different idea: that ‘the world of money is somehow alien to the world of letters’ (106). Through close readings of Jane Austen and of John Lanchester’s Capital, amongst others, Rylance explores literature’s deep antipathy to the principles of profit. Rylance observes that this distaste is, to some extent, disingenuous: literature is bound up in the forces of the market and cannot escape them. Via an interesting analysis of the artist Banksy, he argues that ‘[i]t seems one can oppose money and despise capitalist instruments of its creation and use, but be pulled into the art market nonetheless and gather its bounty’ (121). Ultimately, Rylance concludes that ‘[i]nevitably literature is complicit with money’ (126). Thus, he dismisses literature’s stance as a kind of false high-mindedness, as groundless affectation. Yet this, of course, cannot fully resolve the issue. There remains a tension within this chapter; its first and second halves remain at odds with each other. The basis on which Rylance argues for literature’s good in the first half of the chapter travesties the very position that literature claims for itself; literature is declared beneficial on grounds that it itself would much rather disavow. The reader is faced with a puzzle: in some way, literature’s good is not what literature thinks it is. This, perhaps, touches on literature’s most interesting quality—a quality that cannot be quantified nor expressed in ‘polemical’ terms. The reader is left with a sense that the ‘goods’ that Rylance claims for literature are not its only goods, nor its only properties; there are yet more lurking here in the book’s ‘unresolved complexities’. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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