Some Works Are Greater Than Others

Edward W. Said, Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews 
Edited and with an Introduction by Gauri Viswanathan
Pantheon Books, 2001

Two writers who are well known for their championing of the literary canon are Harold Bloom and George Steiner, whom I have read with appreciation over the last thirty years.  Recently, while reading this collection of interviews with Edward Said, I was attentive to  his own  love of  masterpieces, as evidenced in the following passages…

I really do believe  … that some works are greater than others.  85-86

For instance, Eliot’s”Ariel” poems have always meant a great deal to me, G. M. Hopkins, those kinds of lyrics. There’s a certain privacy in them, and in my experience of them, which has made it difficult for me to write about them.  87 

[I]t was very important for me emotionally when Mahfouz won the Novel Prize. He’s one of the summits of this complex urban configuration which is Cairo and which played a tremendous role, not only in the Arab world, but in my own excavation of modern culture.  124 

There is an intrinsic interest in [“masterpieces”], a kind of richness in them. These are works by great writers, and because of that fact they are able to comprehend a situation which allows them to be interesting even to the point of an oppositional analysis. 151 

[L]iterary analysis is interesting to me because, unlike some people in my field, I actually like the books, poems, and writers that I read. 197 

Just as I’m against William Bennett and Bernard Lewis, and all those who keep telling us that we should only read Homer and Sophocles, I’m against the other  ones who say, you’ll only read texts by black people or by women. 225 

I’m a defender of what I would call good work. The main criterion for me in judging a novel or a poem or a play isn’t the identity of the person who wrote it. That’s interesting, but it’s not the major issue. If that person happens to be of the “right” color or gender or nationality, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be a very fine work…. And one of the things [Hanan Ashwari] discovered in writing this was that being Palestinian and writing about the travail of being under occupation doesn’t necessarily produce good poetry or a good novel. 240, 241

I think the closest we can come to a rule about great as opposed to not-so-great work, aesthetically speaking, is that great work repays much reading and much rereading and continues to deliver a certain kind of agreeable or pleasurable sensation, whether through enlarged consciousness or enhanced taste and sensibility or whatever, and a lesser work doesn’t.  241

What I’m saying is that the fullest and most interesting way to read people like Jane Austen or later Kipling, who writes about India, is to see them not only in terms of English novels but also in terms of these other [Caribbean] novels which have come out. You can read them contrapuntally, to use the metaphor for music. They’re going over the same history but from a  different point of view.  244-245

[Conrad] is one of the few novelists in English to write in a  masterful, although in some cases objectionable, way about place like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Africa, and Latin America. He was really an internationalist of the imperial period  … He’s a great novelist and there is something astonishingly complex and brooding and rich about him that makes me keep wanting to come back to him.  246 

[F]or an English-reader to read Rushdie is to really read something completely new. I mean it has connections with the world of Kipling and of Forster, but it is transformed, it is post-colonial and has its own magic, its own brilliance. 416 

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