'Tipping the Scales': Introduction to Australian Literary Studies Literary Value Special Issue

Making time… reading… remembering… asking questions about why things are the way they are, or could be… these are now radical acts.
– Leigh Dale. The Enchantment of English: Professing English Literatures in Australian Universities

On the first of December 2022, the Australian University Heads of English (AUHE) hosted a short conference at the University of Melbourne as part of the inaugural Congress for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. Academics and postgraduates from across the country gathered to reflect on the value of literature and its various embodiments in their professional activities of research, teaching, governance, and public engagement. From the bar table benches at The Curtain on Lygon Street, the day was hailed a great success, and a similar event reprising the conference theme promised – or wassailed – for 2023. It is the intention of AUHE to convene a small annual conference exploring the challenges we face as literary studies academics seeking to realise the core tasks of humanities education and research. Plans will go ahead while there is human capital to sustain them, though hopes remain high that an annual AUHE short conference on the state of literary studies in Australia will soon be a fixture on the academic calendar. The 2023 conference, ‘The Future of Literary Studies’, will be held at the University of Sydney, with plans for the 2024 conference at the University of Western Australia underway. A commitment to publish papers from annual proceedings is a goal of the current conference committee (Anthony Uhlmann, Ann Vickery, and myself), though one that remains contingent, like the proceedings themselves, on the availability of key individuals. On behalf of the committee, I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to colleagues from across the country, whose peer review of submissions on a tight schedule made this year’s special issue possible.1 The collegial response to our call out was a further expression of the scholarly consensus regarding the urgent need to meet the decline of the humanities in Australia by professing the value of literature across the range of its social, political, pedagogical, and private benefits.

On the day before our gathering at the Malaysian Theatre at the Melbourne School of Design, the artificial intelligence (AI) genie, ChatGPT3, was let out of the bottle. The challenge generative AI poses to literary studies has since come into view,2 confirming the direction taken in the papers collected here, which respond to the relevance question that occupies the mind of university administration with reflections on the evaluative activities and potentials of literary study. Reflexivity is arguably the core strength of the humanities, its first response, historically, to the threats it faces from an uncertain and changing economic and cultural environment. Indeed, reflexivity regarding the assumptions, methodologies, and practices in literary studies was baked into the discipline at its foundation in the modern university. If the humanities have become more reflexive in recent times, it is ‘because they are under threat, blocked, and queried by neoliberal, econometric ideologies of higher education’ (McDonald 1). The phase of intensive self-scrutiny Rónán McDonald referred to nearly a decade ago, as a posture imposed by the prevailing ideologies of higher education, is no guarantee of survival in the neoliberal economy, ‘where change and momentum are normative’ and ‘an unthinking charge into the future on the basis that the future is better’ is fuelled by ‘the fantasy of limitless growth’, as Leigh Dale put it. Under material conditions such as these, ‘understanding the volatility and contingency of disciplinary truths gives us a powerful tool for reflecting on the ways in which institutional environments have the capacity not only to create the conditions for the discovery of truth, but equally to supress truth’ (Dale 304–5).

If the threat to literary studies has grown in recent times, it has also congealed into the imperative to demonstrate its value – economic, social, professional, etc. – in a culture that increasingly marginalises the activities associated with literature and the humanities. The bald discussion of the imperative in dollar terms in the halls of Federal Parliament under the guise of jobs-creation schemes has raised the stakes of public debate. Scholars and academics have a crucial role to play in determining how the humanities are valued in Canberra and in persuading the national community of its enduring benefits, in this instance by articulating employment outcomes. Of the many ironies of the Morrison Government’s Job-ready Graduate program (JRG) and its eccentric pricing of humanities degrees is the well-known fact that job-readiness requires skills taught in the humanities, where working in unstructured environments, appreciating human complexity, communicating new ideas with clarity and compassion, and responding openly to situations with the wit and intelligence required to redefine them is highly prized by employers. The path from humanities degree to permanent job does not always run smooth, because, often enough, it is the humanities graduate who builds the path, and increasingly the job itself. The emphasis on exercising qualitative judgement in the humanities is why its graduates get good jobs, not just any job, a story not told in the econometric ideologies of higher education. The regrettable decision of the Morrison Government to double the cost of humanities degrees was met with a rare coincidence of posterity’s judgement with that of the present. The public outcry led by prominent community and business leaders has not dimmed. Despite a drop in humanities enrolments since 2021, the AI world rapidly taking shape around us has only confirmed the judgement that the graduate skills required to govern it are the fruits of a humanities education. In the frank appraisal of higher education expert Andrew Norton: ‘The prospects are good for [humanities] graduates, especially because English graduates are in a better position to understand what is at stake in the battle between human and AI generated-text’ (qtd. in Carroll). Norton’s prediction is supported by the 2023 University of Oxford report – the most detailed of its kind – tracking the career destination of over nine thousand humanities graduates between 2000 and 2019, which emphasised, among other things, the suitability of skills acquired in tertiary arts and humanities degrees to rapidly changing job markets (Robson).

The JRG is only one sign of the erosion of public trust in the profession. The Federal Government veto of eleven Australian Research Council (ARC) grants in the humanities in 2018 and a further six in 2021 is another. The metrical ideology expressed in these external pressures on the discipline is mirrored inside the sector by the restructuring of the university into a spreadsheet (Brooks and Melick), inspiring management’s recurring efficiency drives that shrink course offerings, departments, appointments, and enrolments, which in turn yields further evidence of poor returns on investment. The papers collected for this issue respond in various ways to the distorting effects on the discipline created by this erosion of public trust in the profession. The first three papers report on the current state of literary studies in Australia and the divergence between how its practices are seen and valued by academics in the field and how they are seen – and measured – by various institutional bodies outside the field. In their paper ‘How should Literary Studies be Evaluated?’, Maggie Nolan, Agata Mrva-Montoya, and Rebekah Ward remind us that, faced with the proliferating attempts to capture professional expertise in metrics, ‘questions of value are very much on the minds of literary scholars in Australia’. Those questions cannot be answered in the same positivist or metrical terms in which they are posed, however, not least because of the difficulty of measuring activities already shot through with value judgements and reflections on literary value. In their AUHE sponsored study, then, the authors investigate the disparity between how universities use journal rankings to judge literary scholars and how literary scholars think they should be judged amidst ‘the expansion of metrics’ in a managerial culture of assessment often ‘far removed from the articulation of any values at all’. Against the backdrop of shrinking enrolments, the JRG, and the ministerial veto of ARC grants in the humanities, scholarly awareness of the shifting nature of literary value over time and institutional settings is a key finding of this study, whose format is more dialogue than survey or questionnaire.

The state of flux in which literary studies finds itself is a dynamic one that presents possibilities of continual renewal, but the agency required to enact it is blocked by managerial suspicion of academics. We have the expertise, scholars report in the AUHE survey, but we are not trusted to exercise it; we are not even trusted to compile a list of leading journals in the field, as one participant remarked. ‘Partly, this appeal to knowing is framed as a form of trust – a quality not readily appreciated in neoliberal contexts.’ The lack of trust betrays an academic culture premised on extrinsic performance rewards – as if ‘academics don’t have the desire or capacity to perform without such measures’ – that makes uncertainty part of the job, an uncertainty that can, the authors suggest, be mined as a creative source of definition and redefinition in changing institutional contexts. The value of knowing and not knowing represents a constructive ambiguity identified by the study’s participants, an openness to and even an optimism before the prospect of evaluation. Despite the ‘competitive and individualising systems of [metrical] evaluation’, watching colleagues bring their work to bear on diverse public and cultural conversations was identified as a source of solidarity among scholars. ‘In this context, maintaining a critically engaged dialogue with colleagues about the value of what we do in the face of technocratic concerns with efficiency and productivity may be one of the most formidable forms of resistance available to us.’ For this reason, the complexity and contradictions of the current political and institutional context of higher education should not be smoothed out but recognised as the ‘big knotted mess’ that it is. Indeed, the authors demonstrate that studies of this kind, which expose the power relations underpinning evaluation practices and unsettle the certainty of such practices, confront tasks well suited to scholars in literary studies.

Anthony Uhlmann digs deeper into the vexed issue of metrics and the suspension of the 2023 Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) process by the incoming Federal Minister of Education in ‘Evaluating Literary Studies [FOR 4705] in Australia: Bad Data, Bad Peer Review’. The AUHE submission to the review of the Australian Research Council Act 2001 recommending the scrapping of the ERA detailed the flaws with data-based rankings systems, but the notorious failings of those systems when applied to the humanities are still not recognised by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), the ARC, and university research offices. While Uhlmann’s argument is directed at category 4705: Literary Studies, it applies with equal force to other humanities disciplines, which value qualitative methodologies and non-traditional research outputs. Uhlmann identifies two related failures in data-driven metrics. First, bad data, which emerges (naturally enough) from the use of citation rankings systems designed for the sciences, not the humanities. Second, bad peer review, or the ranking of universities according to citation-tracking. The distortions in the current system arising from using Scopus to judge citations and SCImago to rank journals are well known in the field. The professional farce perpetrated on the humanities by metrical positivism is too well known amongst scholars to pass mention, but it is not so well known outside the field, even at university research offices and funding bodies, a situation that will only be remedied, Uhlmann suggests, when TEQSA and the ARC end their reliance on bad data and start to consult with peak bodies like AUHE to develop better, more representative approaches to humanities research. Perhaps then the top ranked journals in literary studies – currently Criminology and Public Policy and Plant Phenomics – will not be so marginal to the field that no scholar within it ever contributes to them. Minister Clare’s goal of ‘a modern data-driven approach’ might then be greeted with something other than the derisive sneers and frowns it currently draws from scholars.

How well the values of the profession expressed in the new AUHE mission statement align with the value of literature and literary experience is taken up by Robert Clarke in ‘By Association: Crafting Mission and Values Statements for the Australian University Heads of English’. Clarke investigates why such statements of value are deemed necessary in the context of external pressures on the discipline. The mission and activities of AUHE are distinguished from those of similar professional institutions in terms of the former’s focus on the profession per se, its health and standing in the national community. Clarke lays out the wider context of economic rationalism and managerialism that has impacted the sector and changed the environment of literary studies, showing the ways AUHE has been drawn into wider arguments about the value of literary studies at a time when the subject ‘finds itself as a flashpoint in an ongoing series of contests between conservative and progressive politics and discourses’. But as the writing and reading of literature (or aesthetic experience) is not the same thing as its teaching, researching, and administration at tertiary level, Clarke distinguishes the notion of literary value from the institutional value of the profession itself. The distinction is often elided, such that the values of literature are often regarded as identical with the values of the teaching and research. The public response of AUHE to the controversy surrounding the ministerial veto of ARC grant applications is a case in point. AUHE mobilised the rhetoric of literary value in its criticism of the veto exercised by federal government ministers, but it also premised its argument on a professional foundation. The political exercise of veto by the outgoing federal government undermined the integrity of the profession, insofar as it ‘eroded the public trust in the profession’s expertise’. It was incidents like this that inspired the redrafting of the AUHE mission statement, which Clarke defends as the flexible means by which to anticipate and respond to future developments in the profession.

The remaining papers reflect on the capacities of literary studies to respond to the material and institutional changes that have shaped its development in recent decades. Simone Murray makes the case that defending literary studies from the political, economic, and institutional threats it currently faces requires a clear-sighted view of the digital environment in which it must ply its trade, which she seeks to present in ‘Between Impressions and Data: Negotiating Literary Value at the Humanities/Social Sciences Frontier’. Making sense of literary studies in the digital age – and communicating it to the public – requires an account of literary value that goes beyond its print-centric model to accommodate the digital platforms that define the contemporary environment of the discipline. Reflecting on possibilities foreclosed by the habitual practices and inherited norms of literary study, Murray looks to the institutional approach adopted in digital media studies. The new institutionalism (a term borrowed from sociology) is marked by a turn away from the habitual formalist emphasis in literary studies to the social and economic conditions in which literature is produced and circulated. Its appeal for literary studies scholars, exemplified by Lawrence Rainey’s 1998 study of the literary ecosystems of modernism (and more recent studies of the contemporary book world, the rise of creative writing, and the digital ecology created by new literary practices in self- and corporate publishing), lies in an approach that relieves us of the over-determinism of Leavisite close reading, on the one hand, and its postmodernist reaction in a purist sense of autonomy, on the other hand. Murray maintains that the democratising potential of this contextual rather than aesthetic or ideological approach consists in bypassing the usual gatekeepers of literary value and the institutional blindness of text-based approaches. A more descriptive approach to the literary scene contextualises current practices by emphasising continuities and ruptures with prior literary formations, illuminating the function of literature in a digital culture mediated by ‘powerful, data-harvesting media corporations’ and suggesting ‘compelling rationales for the future of our discipline in an era when “literature” and “print” are no longer synonymous’. There has always been an institutional (de)formation of literary studies, beginning with the most enduring practices stemming from the Cambridge model devised by I. A. Richards in the 1920s. Whether practical criticism foreclosed other approaches for decades to come is debatable when one considers the notorious misremembering of Richards in literary studies (see North 14). Nonetheless, the familiar practices of close reading are ill-equipped to address ‘pertinent questions of textual mediality, reader behaviours and the industrial dimensions of literary culture’, Murray contends, because they are too often ‘bracketed off from a textually dominated and generally retrospectively-oriented literary curriculum’. Murray’s plea for greater appreciation of the digital environment literary studies must work in today is mindful of how disciplinary divisions efface the larger cultural conversation literature engages.

Murray’s call for a sociologically-inflected literary criticism able to reconstruct professional practices of evaluation is answered by Joe Hughes and Jessica Marian in ‘The Values of Critique’, a case study of the archival decisions made at Critique, the preeminent journal founded by Georges Bataille in 1946 that hothoused philosophy and theory in France after the war and ‘transformed the face of the humanities in the West’. Hughes and Marian provide a glimpse into the rise of high theory by way of rarely seen institutional processes and editorial practices at influential academic journals. Their method is not the new institutionalism, exactly, but a questioning of the archive that uncovers competing domains of value. Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory is bracketed – or fragmented – in a use of the archive that reveals the act of judgement as one that traverses intersecting fields (alliances of friendship, budgetary constraints, etc.) which inflect one another. By describing the institutional and material context of value judgements, they redress the hermeneutic bias in literary studies that concerns Murray with a contingent notion of literary value (partly inspired by Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s influential 1988 study Contingencies of Value). The moment we concede the social underpinnings of literary autonomy, they remind us, ‘it is given over to the entire social field, and the value of a work becomes defined by and reflects the extraordinary complexity of the social reality in which it circulates’. The space of judgement at Critique crossed uneven ground in which no single domain of value was determinative. The critical response to this indeterminacy is not to withdraw from value judgement, however, but to identify and co-ordinate its operating contexts.

Catriona Menzies-Pike does something similar in a more informal way in ‘Literary Goods and Services: Ten Years of Complaints about the Sydney Review of Books’, a case study – to use the expression casually, as she does – of the intersectant value domains in which contemporary Australian literature circulates. Reflecting on her time directing the SRB, which grew under her tenure into the most successful long-form journal of review in the country, Menzies-Pike offers a ‘patchy, descriptive and highly partial account’ of the complaints directed at her editorship. No one likes a negative review, she points out, though nothing brings out contested ideas of literary value better. Menzies-Pike reflects on the intersections between literary value and market value, the scholar-critic versus the belletristic essayist, the gap between the lay reader and the professional or close reader, and the heated debate underway ‘about who gets to allocate value’. The culture of diversity fostered at the SRB presents familiar challenges regarding the politics of recognition, and the clash between multicultural notions of value as equality and the hierarchies of value implied by literary judgement.

The effort to reconstruct the material context of valuation in a shifting scene of social values and institutional commitments is taken up in another case study of sorts by Andrew Dean. In ‘Simon During, Crisis Talk, and the Legacies of the 1980s’, Dean charts a critical history of the present – the history of our own demise, as it were – as the legacy of ‘the long 1980s’ that still encumbers us. As the first step in a larger project of sorting through ‘the legacies of literary studies in its theory moment’, Dean hopes to resituate the discipline by way of a material and engaged approach to crisis talk in the humanities. By retracing the rise of Simon During from modish cultural theorist to arrière-garde advocate of Leavisite tradition, Dean views the discrete phases of literary studies since the 1980s through the prism of During’s successful academic career. Dean is not the first to notice the combined fortunes of neoliberalism and high theory in the anglophone departments of English and literary studies of the late twentieth century, when the new cultural studies, touting itself as a post-disciplinary innovation, made a virtue of its anti-methodological approach to the cultural object. During’s academic career begins with this transgressive phase announcing the eclipse of literature by cultural studies only to return to the Leavisite paradigm he built a career on dismantling. The transgressive impulse During once embodied transformed Australasian criticism with polemical essays on two fathers of Australasian national literature, Frank Sargeson and Patrick White. During’s influential reading of ‘The Hole That Jack Dug’ was more interested in the self-sabotaging allegories of discourse than those intended by Sargeson, while his monograph on White has gone down as a hatchet job. Indeed, the neglect of close reading in During’s Patrick White (1996) reduced White to a careerist and his novels to a bundle of misogynist, elitist, and racist impulses, posing the question why anyone would read White in the first place. The legacy of a criticism that treats literature as cultural pathology leaves antipodean literary studies unable to supply a meaningful pedagogy. University administrators can hardly be expected to support literary studies if the profession itself cannot profess the value of literature. ‘Like it or not,’ concludes Dean, ‘to be supported by the public, we actually need to have a concept of public good in mind – and not just as a form of critique.’

The consolidation of radical pique in the cultural studies paradigm that overtook literary studies in the late 1990s and early 2000s occurred in an increasingly managerial environment subject to the fluctuations of university budgets. The neat fit between the new cultural studies and neoliberalism was one During himself promoted as a progressive change from the traditionalism and humanism that formerly underpinned the study of the canon. The program he designed at the University of Melbourne, like others of its kind, presupposed the abstract idea that the levelling of cultural value could be cashed out as political equality. The transgressive impulse was praised as the means of social justice that liberated the individual from ‘oppressive’ hierarchies of value, as if a new, self-defining comportment to the cultural object could replace the slow work of class struggle. As Dean points out, the success of cultural studies had more to do with the commercialised landscape of higher education – and keeping ahead of variable enrolment patterns and attitudes toward popular culture – than it did with disciplinary coherence. During was to become critical of cultural studies for failing to produce meaningful sites of resistance in the mid-2000s, but the absence of a materialist perspective from his critique is symptomatic of a cultural studies project that hitched its cart to the boom-bust cycle of student preferences. Indeed, During’s return to literature in search of alternatives to the paradigm he did so much to legitimise coincided with a shift in the market-like conditions of higher education. His embrace of Leavis, however, which discards the populism of cultural studies in the hope that the ‘postsecular intensities’ of literary experience will provide an exit from ‘endgame capitalism’, reveals the want of politics that marked the transgressive individualism of his cultural studies phase. Dean has no quarrel with During’s Leavisite conviction in the public significance of literature per se. He merely points out that literature’s relation to culture requires a more sustained engagement with the material circumstances of literary studies than is yet apparent in During’s ‘left-conservative’ return to Leavis. Humanities programs both here and in the US have learnt the hard way that expanding student enrolments and shrinking permanent positions has little effect on either prestige or new hirings. Academic security for the humanities depends rather on ‘whether administrators and the government believe that what we do deserves funding than it does on how we as academics understand our discipline, what we teach, or what new just paradigm is devised.’ As the profession turns to face the new threat of generative AI, its focus should be fixed firmly on what literary studies teaching ‘has done well in one form or another for over a century’, as Dean writes in connection with this point; namely, ‘help students to encounter the good, the beautiful, and the true, and learn how to understand texts, themselves, and the world’ (‘AI and the Future of Literary Studies’). 

Suzie Gibson’s reading of Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus and my own recollection of professing literature to students in the pandemic semesters of 2020–22 recall what the power of this encounter between the reader and the work can achieve. Gibson lays her cards on the table: 'The Transit of Venus could be described as a deeply moral fiction that provides readers with precious instruction on how to live.’ Such instruction is not grasped as positive knowledge, however, for it unfolds temporally in the enactment of the work. Indeed, literary experience cultivates an attitude to not-knowing, a comportment to the world essentially practical in its ability to endure uncertainty (thus approximating the capacity John Keats once described as negative capability). Hazzard uses the key device of prolepsis to figure the dialectic of knowing and not-knowing in The Transit of Venus, in which ‘the attitudes of cosmopolitanism and parochialism, hospitality and insularity are examined through protagonists who adopt these contrasting sensibilities’. These attitudes are not merely ways of seeing but modes of moral perception, in which the cosmopolitan acceptance of complexity is played off against an authoritative and provincial outlook ‘limited by its will to power’. Hazzard’s moral drama plays these attitudes so well that her novel overturned the historically pejorative meaning of the epithet antipodean (in Michelle de Kretser’s estimation), a point best demonstrated when the disappointed Ted Tice learns to read the English landscape with antipodean eyes and so ‘reverses the hierarchical order of hemispheres’. For Gibson, each reading of The Transit of Venus ‘awakens the possibility of seeing more and experiencing more’, for ‘the novel’s great intelligence’ lies in ‘its awareness that knowledge gathers momentum through its obscuration’. In Hazzard’s design, a key act (murder) and its consequences are concealed from readers in a way that later transforms their moral perception of the preceding narrative, offering a glimpse into the ethical sensibility that embodies a life well lived. In the end, ‘love is given the most value of all – its power survives the insults and degradations of faithlessness and disappointment’ and thereby invokes ‘the dream of its resilience’.

One measure of the value of literature, then, consists in the way it teaches appreciation of human complexity, showing readers ways of handling their fundamental inability to perfectly control their lives or predict what is to come. For Jonathan Franzen, the literary representation of complexity (and its cognates: mystery, unpredictability, the tragic) fosters in readers a sense of substance or ethical integrity that cyberculture cannot replicate (82). Like Hazzard, who memorably snubbed Stephen King at the 2003 National Book Awards, Franzen is only too aware of the marginality of literature to the technopolis and the rhetoric of optimism that pervades it. Literature can never swallow ‘the necessary lie’ of ‘every successful regime, including the upbeat technocorporatism under which we now live’, wrote Franzen, because its conviction in complexity ‘raises more questions than it answers’ and represents ‘conflict [that] doesn’t resolve into cant’ (91). The attention economy driving the media industry since Franzen’s Harper’s essay has left us more vulnerable than ever to cant, making literature’s antagonism to ‘the infernal modern wedding of technology and consumerism, with its promises of perfect knowledge and purchasable solutions to the problem of existence’, as Franzen put it recently, all the more needful (Potier 6). The ongoing shrinkage of the private space required for reading and inwardness means the arrival of a bookless, depthless humanity might be closer than we think. The transformation of humanity by the internet of things, raising the prospect of ‘living in the shallows of what it means to be human and not knowing the difference’, as Sven Birkerts put it (qtd. in Franzen 91), is a dystopian prospect that was explored on a capstone course (titled ‘The Value of Literature’) delivered at Western Sydney University in the lockdown semesters of 2020–21. In my contribution, ‘Teaching the Value of Literature (and Other Paradoxes)’, I draw several themes in this issue together from the perspective of teaching students how to profess the value of literature and defend their degree choices in an environment hostile to the humanities. In the stay-at-home world of the Great Lockdown, I wanted my students to know that literature was an open horizon – to borrow a line of thought Gibson follows out of Derrida – that ‘allows one to say everything, in every way’. Gibson links Derrida’s remark to his other writings on hospitality and granting asylum to refugees in an age of endless wars. The ethical dimension of literature opened by its dialogic explorations of what we owe to others is where literature and hospitality meet. As teachers or hosts, we do not impose literature and tradition on newcomers but make a place for their arrival.

The problems facing the future of literary studies have internal and external sources. The key reason, Deborah Pike reminds us, lies in the fact ‘the very aims and elements that traditionally make the humanities valuable stand in opposition to a culture of quantification’, a fact ‘which also makes questions of accountability absolutely critical but also keenly problematic for the humanities’. The contradictions of the spreadsheet model of the university, which seeks ‘to offer experiences which go beyond “economic return” in a climate where financial support for universities providing non-economic returns on students’ education is dwindling’, will continue to shape the material possibilities of the discipline for years to come. Constructive suggestions regarding the reinvigoration of the humanities are thus founded on a firm sense of their institutional history, which includes recognition of how the humanities have contributed to their own demise. The relation between the identity politics that have dominated humanities departments over the years and declining levels of support for their programs in Canberra and the wider public, Pike and Dean suggest, is dialectical; the new direction for the humanities emerging from it, they conclude, lies in the articulation of the public good in pluralist terms that move on from the identity politics that thrives under neoliberalism. The tension between ethics and politics is not just a recurring theme of literature and criticism but the institutional ground of our teaching, research, and advocacy in the discipline. If we are to tip the scales and convince the public that the institution of literature cannot be valued solely in dollar terms, then we are obliged by the same measure to demonstrate how the value of literature exceeds political terms. I describe that tension in the context of teaching literature during the culture wars reignited by the Ramsay Centre debate in the closing remarks of this issue.

Finally, my thanks to Anthony Uhlmann and Ann Vickery for their advocacy of literary studies in their various roles at AUHE, Western Sydney University, and Deakin University, their solidarity with colleagues and students in the discipline, and their dedication to literature.


  1. Our thanks also to the editorial and copyediting teams at ALS led by Professor Tanya Dalziell and Julieanne Lamond.

  2. The impact of AI on literary studies is the theme of a special session to be hosted by Associate Professor Charles Barbour at the upcoming 2023 AUHE conference.

Published 30 October 2023 in Special Issue: Literary Value. Subjects: Literature - Study & teaching.

Cite as: Conti, Christopher. ‘'Tipping the Scales': Introduction to Australian Literary Studies Literary Value Special Issue.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, 2023, doi: 10.20314/als.c00bfefbfd.

  • Christopher Conti — Christopher Conti is Senior Lecturer at Western Sydney University and member of the Writing and Society Research Centre.