"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Can We Judge Literature?

I stirred up some concerns among PKD fans with my Philip K. Dick article. Francis Poretto commented thoughtfully, 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.

To wit:

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 it 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.

From Karnick on Culture.


Tom Van Dyke said...

When I play at art criticism myself (but seldom do it around here with the Master STK in da house), I do try to keep my tastes out of it and evaluate quality, as in how thoroughly the artist conveyed his own intention. And of course, we can evaluate the craftsmanship by generally accepted rules.

But upon further review, I do support Mr. Porretto's criterion of the reaction a piece stirs. Not necessarily the sheer numbers, although universality is relevant, but more importantly, the depth of feeling it sparks.

In my earlier years as artist and music producer (who's a sort of editor), I was too focused, I think, on removing the warts, that internal perfection was the soul of art. But sterility is not art. Better to paint one big messy sunset than inscribe a thousand perfect circles.

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" is generally thought to be quite flawed as objective literary standards go, yet it changed the world, one reader at a time.

Art is not synonymous with craft. Its job is to change the heart, the mind, the audience, so they are not the same as before. If it doesn't, it's not art.

Francis W. Porretto said...

"Most assuredly there is a certain something at the heart of all great literary works that cannot quite be identified, much less quantified."

But if it cannot be identified, surely that makes "great" an evaluation of a very personal sort.

Our problem is not one of "cultural relativism," a term subject to many tendentious interpretations when applied to artistic merit. It's the determination of whether artistic greatness falls within the objective or subjective spheres of experience.

Douglas Hofstadter had quite a bit to say on this subject at one point, though one would think he was talking about self-awareness...mostly because he was. It is our capacity to be aware of our own reactions to things, including art, that causes us to talk about such elusive abstractions as beauty and greatness. But our reactions are ours, which poses problems for an objective standard for greatness or beauty that may prove insuperable.

And this, by the way, is coming from one who holds that there is a universal aesthetic. I shall deal with the seeming paradoxes later. Perhaps in Hell.

Michael Simpson said...

The fact, if it is a fact, that one can't identify a single criterion for greatness in art that all people across all times would agree one doesn't, pace FWP above, mean that such a criterion doesn't exist (as I think you mean to acknowledge) but just that we can't articulate it fully, right? It seems to me that a purely subjective aesthetic trips up on its own language. When we call something "great" or "beautiful" we really don't mean just that it's "great" or "beautiful" to us and indeed the natural impulse to share art and and persuade others that it is great and beatiful says something, I think, about our desire to think of art beyond our own subjectivity.

And there's something that worries me about TVD's "depth of feeling" criterion. Do you suppose that art can be great and stir in us the worst sort of emotions, say an irrational hatred of the good or noble?

Anyway, sorry to be gone so much from around here, but I've been more than busy. Off to teach about our old friend Aquinas...

S. T. Karnick said...

Michael, you've got it exactly right and have answered Francis's objections superbly. Tom, regarding your point about Uncle Tom's Cabin, I think that it actually contradicts your and Francis's premise. The fact that a crappy piece of hack melodrama could have a big emotional and political effect shows how useless the emotive criterion is as a tool of valuation, yet does nothing to show that valuation is not possible or salutary.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm not defending melodrama---no matter how many people "loved" Titanic, it's still crap.

But "Uncle Tom's Cabin," despite its flaws, made the world feel the pathetic situation of the slaves, and I have moved impact to the top of my list over many things that are better considered as craft.

Hitchcock may have been a master, but he is ultimately useless. Art's first job is to change the heart, and if possible, the spirit.

S. T. Karnick said...

No, Tom, Uncle Tom's Cabin is trashy though significant, and Hitchock is of great value both aesthetically and culturally. Hitchcock at his best changes people's assumptions in a very salubrious way and his works do indeed alter the audience's hearts and minds positively. They are by no means the senasationalistic fluff that many in the film criticism community have characterized them as being, even when they ignorantly meant it as a compliment. Uncle Tom's Cabin, in great contrast, reinforced and strengthened people's prejudices—the North's belief that the South was a monumentally and uniformly evil place. That is hardly an honorable or salutary thing. But let's not re-fight the Civil War and instead concentrate on what is of real value in works of art. By the standard you suggest, Uncle Tom's Cabin is not art and is indeed very far from it, and Hitchcock's best films are exemplary art.

mark said...

I think the problem is that you grossly overstate "Uncle Tom's Cabin." It was a piece of garbage that did nothing to stir up emotion or thought. It simply capitalized on the emotion of the times. That is why it doesn't stir up emotion today while "Huckleberry Finn" does even though they are about precisely the same topic.

Tom Van Dyke said...

While admitting I haven't read it, I chose Uncle Tom's Cabin precisely because it's known as being pretty lousy. And I was also thinking of the world, not just domestic, reaction.

But something in the novel sparked a revulsion toward slavery that all the tracts and brimstones about it had not achieved. And there are many pieces about the woes of the human condition (especially these days, it seems), but none have had anywhere near the impact of UTC.

As for Hitchcock, after viewing a dozen of his entertainments, I felt I was qualified to render my opinion that they are not what I think of as art, and indeed their consummate craftsmanship is what is often confused for it. While Hitchcock's canon pushes some of our buttons, it leaves enormous swaths of our humanity unaffected.

(The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is of course the better and more enduring work, but it must also be acknowledged that it was written after the world it described had already been changed.)

Hunter Baker said...

I've heard part of Uncle Tom's Cabin read out loud and thought it was pretty fab stuff.

With regard to Hitchcock, rent Rope.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thanks---I wiki-ed Rope. HB, looks interesting. A bit of a flop, of course.