I stirred up some concerns among PKD fans with my Philip K. Dick article, which was cross-posted at The Reform Club site. Francis Poretto commented thoughtfully there, suggesting that there is no way to discern true greatness in a writer. After stating, "For my money, a great writer is one who inspires me to great emotion," Francis asks, "How shall I judge Dick, or any writer, great, even if permitted to use my criterion?"
It’s a fair question, and one that I implicitly answered in my original comment on PKD. Francis correctly observes that a numerical analysis of how a particular author measures up to an individual’s chosen standards is impossible. Hence, he suggests, it’s silly to engage in such discussions. "I think you can see where this is going," he concludes.
I can indeed see where that is going, and I am rather surprised to see someone who is most decidedly not a philosophical relativist taking the position Francis is staking out in regard to literature. Certainly it’s true that we cannot hope to judge the quality of literary works and the overall achievements of their authors by some sort of quantitative analysis, but that is absolutely not the same thing as saying that there are no qualitative differences between such works and authors. And if there are such differences, then it is most certainly useful and salutary to discuss the matter.
Francis points out the following as possible standards, but then dismisses them:
— Widespread critical acclaim?
— Volume of sales?
— The length of time his works have been read?
— His avoidance of modifiers?
— The effulgence of his imagery?
— Some other criterion?
The answer, as you will have already guessed, is (f), some other criterion. Or, more accurately, some other criteria.
Most assuredly there is a certain something at the heart of all great literary works that cannot quite be identified, much less quantified. Rather like the human soul, we perceive it but cannot isolate it. However, just as the human soul is held in a body that makes identifiable and even quantifiable actions, this heart of a novel is contained in (and indeed suffuses) a book that has identifiable characteristics. These characteristics can even be usefully quantified in some cases, though I believe actual numerical quantification to be unnecessary for a valid literary analysis.
Specifically, it is possible to put individual tastes aside and discuss literature and the other arts in a rational and salubrious way.
We can observe, for example, that some books have deeper, more true, and more convincing characterizations than others. We can see that some have plots that are more interesting and diverting than others. Some have stories that are more plausible, convincing, and usefully reminiscent of reality than others. Some have descriptive passages that make the fictional world come alive more convincingly than others. Some have prose that is so beautiful and artful that it gives us distinct pleasure to contemplate. Some have moral implications that bring our human condition into greater focus and give us real insights into our position in the cosmos. And so on.
Yes, we cannot always quantify such things, but we certainly can make comparisons and discuss what is most worthy of our time and energy. And the point of my post was that a good many of the writings of Philip K. Dick are much more worthy of our time and attention than those of most mainstream American literary artisans of the twentieth century.
So let us indeed feel free to discuss the quality of authors’ works, singly and in toto. We should always recognize that there is much room for disagreement, awareness of ambiguity, and differing assessments of how various works measure up to the ideal characteristics of literature, and that individuals can hold different rankings of importance among the various aspects of literary excellence, but that it is nonetheless both possible and necessary to discuss these works objectively and with a sincere search for truth at the heart of the matter.