Tuesday 8 October 2013

"Good Writing"

Today's topic might be a bit of an argument of semantics, but the term "good writing" has always been a bothersome one for me. In its strictest sense this generally refers to the words on the page; the clarity, pace, voice, and structure of the sentences an author strings together. The issue, for me, comes in the distinction between good writing and a good writer, along with the way many people use the phrase "good writing" to describe a book they enjoyed in the most general sense.

Funnily enough, you don't have to have very good writing to be a good writer. Your prose can be as basic and utilitarian as it comes, but if it's used to create a compelling story with engaging characters and a gripping plot, readers are still going to be glued to the pages from start to finish.
I recall Stephen King mentioning in his book On Writing that he doesn't consider himself a good "writer", merely a good storyteller.
I'd very much say the same of myself.
I don't try to be poetic or sublime in my writing (I've been trying my best over the past year to simplify my prose as much as possible, if anything), I just try to convey the point as clearly as possible to facilitate the scene at hand. When I sit down at my keyboard I'm not generally thinking about what I'm doing in terms of individual sentences, but the scene they construct as a whole, and the place that scene has in the greater narrative.

On the other end of the spectrum you have writers who are incredibly eloquent and poetic, but who don't do a very good job of putting together a story that holds the reader's interest. A while back I tried to read Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, and I took two things away from my experience; firstly, that Peake's prose was amongst the most eloquent and poetic I'd ever read, and secondly, that his work was massively inaccessible to a modern audience.
I don't like to say that authors from his generation are "bad writers", because the standards of storytelling from fifty years ago were very different to what we understand today, but Gormenghast, for all of its delicious turns of phrase, is not a story that will suck many people in.
It is not, by our standards, a well-told story.
A piece of art? Certainly. But not a well-told story.

So where am I going with all of this?
Well, the other day I read a comment on a forum from someone who had taken a brief glance at a fellow author's novel, and returned within a few minutes to reassure them that they were a "good writer".
I had to pause and scratch my head at that. Of course, I'm sure they author in question was a wonderful writer, but it made me think about how a lot of people are liable to read short passages of prose, assess how "well written" it is, and then go on to classify the author as either a good or bad writer based purely on the way they construct a paragraph.

I'm guilty of this too! I often find myself dipping into successful novels on Amazon, casting my eyes over the excerpt, and reassuring myself that "I could've written this. Being a good writer isn't so hard!"
Of course that's silly, because the success of a book has very little to do with the "writing" in its most literal sense. J. K. Rowling isn't successful because she can turn a phrase like Shakespeare, but because she can construct scenes and storylines that lend themselves perfectly to a thoroughly gripping page-turner.
It's not so much about the words we use, but the world we build out of them, and that's something that can never be assessed at a quick glance.

The phrase "good writing" is mentioned so often in book reviews that it's often hard to discern exactly what someone means when they use it. Was the book really made great by the author's mastery of prose? Or was it more to do with the scenes and characters they created, the plot and pacing, or any one of a dozen other things?

Don't get me wrong, good writing is still an important part of any novel, but in my eyes it's relatively low on the scale of things that make most readers fall in love with a book. And yet, because it's the most immediately and visually apparent quality of a novel, many readers (myself included) tend to attribute a lot of their superficial impressions to "good writing", when really they should be talking about something else.

Now I feel like a massive nerd for fixating for so long on how people use a single phrase.

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