Sunday, October 21, 2012

Good Writers, Great Writers

Leo Tolstoy
Good writers have it. 

Style. Elegance. Pzazz. Wit. Charm. The well-turned phrase.  An ear for language. An eye for detail. Punch. Verbal charisma.

Great writers may have it (see above) —or not. 

They may pen lyrical passages and then lapse into writing that is plodding, verbose, or second rate. But you probably won’t mind. You may not even notice. 

Herman Melville
Because for a great writer, it’s not so much about the writing. And it’s not about perfection. It’s about telling a great story.

I guess that’s why Melville can get away with several mind-numbing chapters about the history of whaling in Moby Dick. Or why Tolstoy can use enough character names to fill a phonebook. Or why Ayn Rand can insert a long political rant near the end of Atlas Shrugged.

Randy Ingermanson said that writers don’t sell books because they have no weaknesses. Books sell because of their strengths.

C. S. Lewis
I remember sunning by the pool years ago, reading Perelandra, by C. S. Lewis. I was in the part where the hero Ransom is floating on the golden sea of the planet Perelandra. And floating and floating and still floating. Up and down, up and down. I was getting bored and a little sea sick. 

I thought to myself, "Good grief, I can write better than this!"

J. K. Rowling
And then I laughed, because yes, I did realize the absurdity of that thought. First, because I can't actually "write better than that." And second--and more important, because Lewis is for me, a great writer. When I finish one of his stories, I am a different person. He has given me a glimpse of heaven or hell or of my own secret heart.

I should be so lucky as to "write better than this." Or even to come close.

Ernest Hemingway
A good writer may tickle your intellect. A great writer will touch your heart. 

A good writer will entertain you. A great writer will change you. 

A good writer will probably impress you with her virtuoso performance. 

A great writer isn't a show-off. He is a humble servant to the story he is telling.

Ernest Hemingway, Lewis Carroll, J. K. Rowling, John Steinbeck, Stieg Larsson, John Grisham, Kate di Camillo, Suzanne Collins, Stephanie Plum -- all are widely acknowledged as good writers. Which ones are not only good but great? 

Suzanne Collins
And who decides? Not your high school English teacher. Not your minister. Or your mother-in-law or your analyst or your BFF. Not the New York Times or Publishers' Weekly. It's your call. And mine. We choose. 

Or it might be more accurate to say that great stories choose us. They are speaking words of wisdom and enlightenment. They are calling us to come up higher. We just have to listen and respond.

"Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books."
        --The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,
                Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

1 comment:

  1. How very true! My great writers include Madeleine L'Engle, Henri Nouwen, Francis Hodgson Burnett, Wendell Berry, Walt Wangerin, Lucy Maud Montgomery, and Harper Lee. Of course, this isn't an exhaustive list. Many, many more. But they all have one thing in common...they've made me a better person.