Great writing

by Jim

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!

15 Responses to Great writing

  1. Caroline Tung Richmond says:

    I consider Jhumpa Lahiri to be a great writer. Whenever I read her work, I'm simply blown away by the artistry of her words.

  2. Bethany says:

    You already said Toni Morrison. But I'm gonna go head and say Toni Morrison. Because really, it can't be said enough.

    Zora Neale Hurston isn't so much a favorite, but she wrote the line that I'm due to have tattooed on my arm. "Ships at a distance hold every man's wish on board."

  3. Suzi McGowen says:

    Right now, Patricia Briggs is my "great writer". The way she handled the (spoiler scene) in book 3 of the Mercy Thompson books, and handles the after effects in later books was a defining moment for me.

    I also love the way Wen Spencer spun "A Brother's Price", without making it about changing the society, just presenting it as it was in a (possibly) alternate Earthl.

  4. Qraig says:

    David Sedaris.

  5. Judith Mercado says:

    Margaret Atwood, Marilynne Robinson, Stephen King,Clarice Lispector, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jose Cortazar etc etc etc … I could be at this for a very long time … but thanks for asking.

  6. Judith Mercado says:

    Julio, not Jose, Cortazar … you'd never know I was in the middle of reading his Rayuela, would you?

  7. Jenn (From the Mixed-Up Files) says:

    I second Jhumpa Lahiri. Eudora Welty, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, and Leif Enger are others I turn to when I want to be inspired. I think they all are masters at writing an artful sentence (different styles, each) and telling a captivating story.

  8. K. M. Walton says:

    John Green, Lev Grossman, Sherman Alexie, Anne Lamott, Anita Diamant

  9. Anonymous says:

    Cormac McCarthy. If you can tolerate his penchant for eschewing punctuation. The opening two pages of All The Pretty Horses is remarkable. Poetry pure and simple.

  10. C.R. Boone says:

    One of my favorite YA authors is Sarah Dessen. Her stories are a snapshot of teenage life, weaving complex characters in and out of universal emotional experiences.

  11. Ara Burklund says:

    John Irving, Chuck Palahniuk, Emily Giffin, and Amy Tan.

    Great post, Jim. I laughed out loud at the opening quote. : )

  12. MaryWitzl says:

    Marilynne Robinson for sure. Kazuo Ishiguro, A. S. Byatt, Barbara Kingsolver, James Baldwin, Khaled Hosseini, and Amy Tan. It takes me ages to read their books because I have to read certain passages over and over, they're so beautiful.

  13. Ara Burklund says:

    Ooh! I have to add Janet Fitch to this list. : )

  14. Sangu says:

    Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite writers ever – because her prose is always, always beautiful AND because she tells great stories. So I think I look for the complete package in my favourite novelists. That said, great characters will always win me over, however badly a chapter's been 'written'. But it really, really helps to be a great writer too. The Time Traveler's Wife is a good example of great writing, great story, and great characters (in my opinion).

  15. black expressions book club says:

    Yes it seems that great writing AND great storytelling is much too rare to demand it :) Yes, it is TOO much to ask :) For me, it's always been Hemingway.

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