In the midst of a delightful flaying of left-wing word mangling, Sarah Hoyt relates this vignette about a Facebook argument over “great” writers:
[Her interlocutor] entered a discussion on the purpose of writing, and whether writing should/could be good when done simply for money, by saying that since all great writers never made money from their writing, it was obvious that writing for money was a bad thing.
I countered with the names of six (considered) great writers who made fortunes from writing. He said “Ah, half a dozen out of hundreds” so I continued giving him names, as they occurred to me. It is a fact (perhaps not universally acknowledged, but a fact) that most writers we consider great made money from their writing. If they died in poverty it was because of their spectacularly bad money-management skills. Now, I’m not going to get into an argument over whether writing for money makes writing better. The sample of “writers we consider great” is contaminated by the fact that the writers have to have been widely disseminated enough to begin with for their writing to be known now and considered anything. That implies a degree of initial success, which usually brings money. It’s entirely possible that someone somewhere wrote something great that was never read except by their mother and their cat, but then those writers are not now universally acknowledged as “great.”
Sarah has exposed a key fact: Circulation is a prerequisite. No writer we deem “great” languished in total obscurity during his working lifetime. All “great” writers were widely read, at least by the standards of their times. Wide circulation brings revenue with it. Whether it was enough revenue to live on is a separate question.
But writers we consider hacks have also enjoyed wide circulation. Some of them had much wider readerships than any generally acknowledged “great” writer. So while circulation is necessary, it’s not sufficient. I’m sure any of my Gentle Readers could name a number of contemporary hacks who’ve sold millions of books.
So what does it take? What are the criteria? What makes a writer great? Well, we could say that a great writer is one who has written a great book or books. (Beware the ambiguity of “great book.” We wouldn’t want to use it in the sense of the medieval writer who wrote that “I have before me a great book, for it weigheth four and a half pounds.”) But what makes a book great?
It’s difficult to become a great writer in certain categories. Take children’s books, for instance. What writer of children’s stories, other than the late, lamented Theodore Seuss Geisel, would anyone call great? The field itself seems to minimize the possibility.
Similarly, some of the best selling books of all time are cookbooks. But the writers of cookbooks, which they might be accorded respect as great cooks, are seldom (if ever) deemed great writers, despite the painstaking work that goes into transcribing hundreds of recipes.
Oh, here’s another one: books of mathematical and scientific reference data. Quite a lot of books filled with nothing but logarithms and the values of the trigonometric functions have sold very well indeed. However, their “writers” don’t get a lot of mentions in critical circles. Is that “unfair” in some sense?
Many persons would dismiss all the above categories as “not real writing.” They have a decent argument for their position. Yet quite a lot of work goes into those books. As they’re relied upon for various purposes by those who buy them, they demand accuracy and precision. That they don’t qualify for literary accolades seems rather sad.
It appears that in pondering greatness among writers, if we want some degree of commonality about what sort of work would qualify, we must stick to fiction.
Fiction – the telling of stories – has its own unique demands. The first of them is the toughest to meet:
Moreover, the nature of the story is rather narrowly confined. It must be about “people,” broadly defined. Its characters must confront challenges or problems of significance. And whether they succeed or fail, those characters must experience change.
Let’s tackle the “people” part first. What constitutes “people?” Well, they must be self-aware – sentient. They must have needs and desires. They must have some degree of rational volition – the ability to think through a problem and make conscious decisions about how to solve it. And they must have limitations. That makes it easy to exclude non-rational animals, emotionless and omnipotent beings. Everyone else qualifies, at least prima facie.
Consider in this light two fantasies: Thomas M. Disch’s The Brave Little Toaster and Richard Adams’s Watership Down. The protagonists in both books are non-human...but they function as people, quite as well as the recognizably human characters in any other novel.
The “people” in a good story will confront important problems: not a missing sock or a cracked coffee mug; something that calls their convictions and emotions into play. The problem must be clearly drawn, at that; it can’t be something nebulous or puerile such as “finding myself.” And to solve the problem must require that the protagonist experience change: he must grow in some fashion, or learn something about life or himself that he hadn’t previously known.
Once again, I think we’ve established prerequisites – necessary conditions – for calling a story great, without zeroing in on the defining characteristic of greatness itself. Many a good story has been told that no one, not even the storyteller’s relatives, would call great. There’s something more at work in the crafting of a truly great tale.
We’re getting into the subjective here, so as usual, your mileage may vary.
The emergence during the Twentieth Century of fictional styles that deviate greatly from direct narration was accompanied by a great tumult, among readers and critics both. Some of them, such as stream-of-consciousness, were eventually widely accepted. Others, such as the fragmented, difficult to follow approaches employed by Jerzy Kosinski and J. P. Donleavy, have gained only limited popularity. Curiously, in critical circles the latter command greater prestige than the former. Often a critic will deem a writer’s dramatic deviation from the norm reason enough to call him “great” even if his books don’t sell.
My own take on this is that such stylistic “innovations” are lace edging at best, sense-clouding deviation for deviation’s sake at worst. The quality of the story being told, particularly how deeply it affects the reader, matters infinitely more than any aspect of style.
A deeply affecting story needn’t be about world-shaking events. It can be, of course; J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy concerns events that could mean enduring freedom or a permanent descend into slavery for an entire world. But Judith Guest’s beautiful Ordinary People is equally affecting, though it limits itself to the troubles of a single family that’s lost a son in a boating accident.
Note that the two books above tell widely different kinds of story, and are told in markedly different styles. Yet both fit my criterion for greatness: they couple to the great emotions and what evokes them.
The great emotions are most reliably evoked by a story that illustrates a great truth about human nature. Sometimes, the central truth will be of the sort that we’re loath to admit to ourselves. That’s the case in Ordinary People, where the Jarrett family’s difficulties arise from the way Beth Jarret blames her son Conrad for her son Jordan’s death. In other cases, the central truth will be about something grander in scale that we (should) all know: the inherent goals of those who embrace evil, and the sacrifices good men must make to defeat them, as in The Lord of the Rings. But one way or another, an eternal verity – an abiding truth that’s both universal among men and inherent in our common nature – will stand at the heart of a great tale.
A writer will sometimes be accorded greatness on the strength of a single book. Consider Margaret Mitchell and Gone With The Wind. Other writers are deemed great on the basis of a consistent level of excellence in their lifetime body of work, such as Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck. Then there are “split decisions” about writers such as Norman Mailer, who did produce one great book, The Naked and the Dead, and one hell of a lot of schlock. Opinions will always vary.
The one thing that won’t vary is that people will read their stuff.
Few writers working today will ever be called great. In part that’s because there are so many writers today, if we allow the title to anyone who’s ever emitted a Kindle eBook. But in larger measure, it’s because there’s a whole lot of detritus obscuring good storytelling in our time. It begins with emphasis on “style.” It ends with “message fiction.” In the middle are the emissions of critics, most of whom couldn’t compose a comprehensible note to their mothers, and literary prizes most commonly awarded by prize juries on the basis of personal acquaintances, commonality of style, and “politically correct” sentiments.
Most of the garbage will get caught in the filter of time. The good stuff will be read by generations to come. Their readers will select from those survivors which books and writers are to be called great. We won’t be given a vote, except by what we choose to buy, read, and recommend to one another today.