What is "Great Writing"?
Updated: Dec 22, 2020
This week, a writer acquaintance (dare I apply the label "friend"?) posted to Twitter she worried she would never be a great writer. I have a lot of thoughts on that topic.
The first is, what is a "great writing?" In 1964, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart described his threshold test for obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio by saying, "I know it when I see it." Often in literature, we take a similar approach to how we judge writing. We'll know it because it will shine above its contemporaries like a beacon on a hill...right? And yet scratch the surface and we find that's balderdash. Consider the following four examples:
According to his Wikipedia page, Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's greatest dramatist. His works have been performed more often than any other playwright. And yet in his time, Shakespeare was considered a good but not exceptional playwright. If a contemporary had guessed whose works would still be extant four hundred years later, they would have bet on Edmund Spenser, not Shakespeare. Yet in 2020, we ask, "Edmund who?"
The English poet John Keats is one of the Big Six English Romantic poets, taught in every poetry class, but his poems were totally panned by contemporary critics and he died believing he was an utter nobody and failure. In fact, his gravestone reads "Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water." Ouch.
Henry David Thoreau, now considered one of the greatest American writers, had two books published to a mediocre reception before switching to self-publication. He only sold a third of the books he had printed, and the reception was middling.
In 2007, David Lassman, the director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, sent query letters to 18 of the UK's biggest publishers and agents. The trick? He was querying three of Jane Austen's works. Every single recipient turned the book down, and only one recognized it as Austen. In fact, Austen herself had trouble finding an agent. So much for quality being self-evident.
If "great writing" is so objective and obvious, how did these future classics slip through the cracks? Obviously, "great writing" is neither objective nor obvious. "Great writing" is subjective and time and place dependent. Given that, while we might be able to rank some writing as better than others, how can anyone assess with any certainty what "great writing" is or will be decades from now? To my acquaintance, I say, "Don't be discouraged. Who's to say your writing isn't great? Keats didn't think he was good either. Do your best, because that's all any of us can do. Who knows how the future will judge you."
The second thing I have to say about "great writing" has to do with the difference between technique and "classic themes" and impact. All of us have encountered books from the "Classic Novels" list that left us cold. These books are well written and have themes that have resonated for a century or more with English teachers, but they make us want to put them down and never finish. For my girlfriend, those books include "Pilgrim's Progress" and "As I Lay Dying." For me, they include "Wuthering Heights" and "The Catcher in the Rye." Some writers have exquisite technique, a mastery of words, flow, and narration. They have a keen grasp of the human psyche and universal themes that plumb the depths of humanity. But "great writing" isn't always beloved and it's definitely not correlated with impact. Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" is on every classic list, but unless you're deeply interested in the intricacies of whaling, it gets tedious a few hundred pages in. Few people in the 21st century have read "Moby Dick" and had it change their trajectory of their life.
Once upon a time, I would have loved to be a "great writer." There's an undeniable allure to being critically recognized. But as I've grown older, my goals as a writer have changed. Now, if I could only have one of the two, I would rather write a book that has impact than a book with wonderful grammar, great sentence structure, and a plucky heroine out to upend traditional Victorian mores. This is to say I'd rather write JK Rowling's "Harry Potter" than James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." Both have their place in the world, but half a billion Harry Potter books had been sold as of February 2018. On average, this means one in fifteen people in the world owns a Harry Potter book. When it comes to positive impact, that's hard to beat. If Rowling had leaned a little harder into themes of racism, classism, sexism, etc., could she have helped chisel away at age-old biases by teaching young readers to be tolerant of differences? I believe so. With great power comes great responsibility...and a gay Harry Potter could have been revolutionary worldwide.
Like my acquaintance, I'll never be a "great writer." I don't write profound tomes that peel back society's layers to offer a piercing insight about what lies beneath. But she and I have something in common: we both write LGBT material. We both believe the world needs more queer content and we're committed to producing it. To me, there's huge importance in contributing to my community that trumps the attraction of being a "great writer." In her case, she turned an idea into a script into a lesbian webseries whose first episode alone received almost half a million views on Vimeo. But even if her webseries had only gotten ten views, if one or two of those viewers had been inspired to fight harder for their right to love who they choose and live a happy life, that would have had its own incalculable value, wouldn't it? In my opinion, for whatever that's worth, she is already "great" by virtue of the effect that she will have on the lives she touches. She doesn't have to be Lord Byron or Ralph Waldo Emerson to do that. She can just be herself.
As a parting thought, the ideal, of course, is to be a writer like Charles Dickens. Dickens was the literary pop star of his era, at whose readings fans sometimes fainted. He created some of the world's best-known fictional characters and is regarded by many as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. He was wildly popular and readers of all classes waited with bated breath for the publication of his works. But more than that, he was a social justice reformer whose works helped change public opinion about class inequality. There can only be one Dickens, however, so all we can do is carve out our own space in the literary world, however big or small that space is.