Verdicts concerning a work’s worth, “good,” “bad,” or “great,” vary wildly at any point and change radically over time. Much depends on what didactic or aesthetic rules are imposed and what modes of reading hold sway. Many critics see the purpose of literature as didactic; others subscribe to the principle of art for art’s sake. We need to know whether we are debating a text or disputing the evaluative criteria applicable to it. We need to ask how certain we are of what the author meant to accomplish. Henry Fielding and David Hume remind us that a range of judgments is unavoidable: people differ, and so do aesthetic and moral preferences. So if subjectivity is inescapable, we should accept chaotic diversity in a spirit of courteous toleration.

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