|Phil Coates, in response to my vote for Charles Dickens as the greatest novelist to have written (so far) in English:|
"That's a very strong statement. Care to explain? [I'm asking you, rather than some of the other posters, for elaboration because you are well-read, know a lot about literature, and have taught it.]"
I've taken a few days to reply to this question, because I've needed time to figure out how to do so *briefly*. I could write a book in reply to this question. My friend George H. Smith -- with whose work most Objectivists are familiar, I think -- is fond of quoting a letter in which Thomas Jefferson apologies to his fellow correspondent for having written at such length. "I hadn't the time to write a short letter," he explains. There is much wisdom in this.
Well, I still haven't figured out how to make my point briefly yet persuasively -- perhaps because of the distraction of having a couple of professional deadlines looming up before me, perhaps because of the distraction of having family in the path of Hurricane Rita. But I'll take a stab at it.
The skill of novel-writing is actually a combination of two major skills: the art of writing and the art of storytelling. To be a truly *great* novelist, in my opinion, a writer must be a master of both. The ranks of so-called "popular" novelists (see my recent article in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, "Ayn Rand's Influence on American Popular Fiction," for an extended discussion of the concept of "popular" vs. "serious" or "literary" fiction) are packed with people who are anywhere from pretty good to great at storytelling but are anywhere from pretty good to terrible at writing. The ranks of so-called "serious" novelists are packed with people who are anywhere from pretty good to great at writing but are anywhere from pretty good to terrible at storytelling.
The art of storytelling may be broken down into a number of more specialized skills, e.g., plotting, characterization, mixing "scenic" narration with "panoramic" narration, management of point of view, management of time, creation of "suspense," etc., etc., etc.
The art of writing (in the specific context of writing novels) may be similarly broken down into a number of more specialized skills, e.g., descriptive writing (static), descriptive writing (active), dialogue writing, management of rhythm, management of imagery, management of place and character names, management of parallel structures, etc., etc., etc.
Only a handful of novelists in our language are true masters of *all* the relevant skills that go into writing a great novel. Not only is Dickens one of them, but the level of mastery which he is able to sustain over the length of even a very long novel is positively astonishing. He not only does everything well; at his best, he does everything brilliantly. There is really no one like him. He is one of only two novelists with three titles in my Top Twenty-five Novels in English list (the other is William Faulkner). And Dickens's novels consistently outrank Faulkner's on the list. (That is, Bleak House outranks Absalom, Absalom! in the top ten; Great Expectations outranks Light in August in the second ten; and A Tale of Two Cities outranks Go Down, Moses" among the titles that come in between 20 and 25.)
There -- that's my stab at putting the matter briefly. I wish I could make my argument even clearer by defining each of the specific skills that goes into the writing of a novel more exactly and citing passages from various novels to illustrate degrees of excellence at each.
But at the moment, even if anyone on SOLO would like to read such an exposition, I haven't the time to go into it.