Literary value

What it is

Certain texts have been designated as ‘highly valued’ and have been accorded ‘canonical’ or ‘classic’ status because ‘experts’ declare them to have universal and timeless appeal. However questions such as ‘Whose canon?’ and ‘How universal?’ and ‘What makes this popular?’ are always being asked. In fact the value of any text is always under revision as the principles and processes for ascribing value vary across time and cultures and as popular culture texts emerge as classics.

Literary value does not include the values expressed or implied in a text but refers specifically to how one can attribute worth to a text in terms of its value to ‘civilisation’, a culture, a society, or a particular group of people. Each of these groups may attribute a different value to the text and use different criteria to do so.

Why it is important

Questions of value arise regularly among teachers who need to choose what is valuable for students to study. They also arise among students who want to know why they need to study a particular text and what it is that they value about texts. For these reasons, teachers need to make clear to their students on what basis we make these value judgements and how students can make these judgements themselves.

Students need to understand that texts may be valued for different reasons: their aesthetic value; the significance of their message; their historical value, the ways in which they innovate with technology or the way in which they exemplify important aspects of or movements in literature.

Stage 6

Students understand that the notion of literary value is being reworked by globalisation, digitalisation and the shaping influences of media.

They learn that

  • criteria of valorisation vary depending on the dominant tastes of a culture and change from age to age and with technology
  • literary value is traditionally seen to reside in texts that

-have the function of reflecting or shaping society*

-are ‘elevating’ or ‘civilising’ in their promotion of aesthetic and moral values*

-seem to be original and arise from an individual genius*

-make assumptions about universality*

-form a repository of cultural capital as a bulwark against erosion by populism*

  • different ways of valuing texts reflect and imply different ways of reading.*

*Advanced and Extension courses

Stage 5

Students understand that texts are valued within personal and cultural value systems and that these may change in different historical and cultural contexts.

They learn that

  • texts have been valued for expressing views about the human condition
  • textual patterning is aesthetically pleasing
  • understanding of literary value may vary across time and culture
  • texts that open up new ways of thinking about ideas and values are culturally significant.

Stage 4

Students appreciate that texts are valued for their aesthetic and social significance.

Students learn that

  • texts draw on cultural knowledge and promote particular values
  • evocative imagery and elegant arrangement of ideas are pleasing
  • different types of texts are valued differently
  • texts may be more or less significant for different groups
  • texts that raise questions about or open new ways of thinking about life and living are significant.

Stage 3

Students begin to understand that texts can be valued for the ways they convey experiences and ideas.

Students learn that

  • texts that have several layers of meaning or that can be interpreted in various ways can be satisfying
  • texts that are thought-provoking and extend one’s understanding of the world are valued.

Stage 2

Students understand that pleasure can be gained by sharing ideas and feelings about texts

Students learn that

  • texts are a way of encountering ideas
  • imaginative texts are expressions of real world ideas
  • texts can be a source of emotional satisfaction.

Stage 1

Students understand that there are specific aspects of texts that enhance enjoyment.

They learn that

  • texts are a way into the world of the imagination
  • texts of literary value can be enjoyed many times.


Students understand that engagement with texts may be a source of pleasure.