A few weeks back, one of our commenters asked me a completely unanswerable question: “What is great writing?”
He may have been talking about porn, but I think Supreme Court Justice Potter Smith nailed it when he said, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”
For me, the phrase “great writing” brings to mind authors who can devastate you with a sentence, whose ability to find distinctive, rich, unique ways to use language are stunning in their own right. I think of people like Toni Morrison who blew my high school mind with this sentence in Song of Solomon: “When the little boy discovered, at four, the same thing Mr. Smith had learned earlier — that only birds and airplanes could fly — he lost all interest in himself.” Morrison is one of my favorite novelists. But the phrase great writing also makes me think of someone like Ian McEwan whose prose is always gorgeous and whose books I find tedious and overworked.
Really, the only thing I can say for sure about what great writing is is that it’s only a piece of the puzzle. Some of the finest crafters of prose can’t tell a story to save their life. And some brilliant storytellers can’t make their way through a paragraph without a total dud of a sentence. Take a look at Dan Brown. I don’t think anyone sees him as the most artful writer, but he tells a great story.
Though the tendency is to think that literary fiction is about great writing and commercial fiction is about great storytelling, I think the truth is that all good books blend both. Category divisions crop up based on how the balance between the two is achieved, but what we want to find, in any category, is a book that tells a great story, in wonderful language, with rich characters, fantastic narrative momentum, and an eye for detail.
Is that so much to ask?
What about you folks? Any other writers you feel are particularly “great writers?” I’d also throw out Marilynne Robinson, Steven Millhauser, Andrew Holleran, Margaret Atwood, Colum McCann…there are so many!