In my last long post, I discussed the question “what is writing” with a brief aside on the difference between a “writer” and an “author.” Now, I’m going to move onto ground that is much less solid. How do we define quality, or even great writing?
I believe there are three main factors: adequacy, star quality, and popularity.
Adequacy is simply the ability to tell a story in writing without obvious errors, whether they are storytelling or writing errors (I may have another blog post one of these days on the difference between and relative importance of storytelling and writing, but for this post, I’m lumping them together). Thankfully, the “adequacy” part of writing is very much in the control of the writer; it’s a craft issue, not an aesthetic/taste issue.
Star-quality is the ability of a book to shine and grab hold of audiences, usually because it does something unusual.
Popularity, on the other hand, refers in this blog post to an author’s handling of elements in a way that is popularly conceived of as “good writing.”
The tricky part of this is that what i’m calling “popularity” is often called “good writing” by readers, literary critics, and teachers of creative writing or even published writers who lead workshops. The problem is that there are two parts to what we, as a culture, see as “good writing.” One is the adequacy mentioned above, and it refers to language use. If you have grammatical mistakes that significantly impair the reader’s ability to follow your story, your book is inadequate for publication. Another one is the Golden Rule of Writers: Thou Shalt Not Bore Thy Reader. Some people say that the rule is that you should never _confuse_ your reader, but that’s obviously not true. Confusing writing occasionally gets published, if it’s done deliberately and for a purpose. Boring writing doesn’t. The thing with confusing writing, though, is that it’s not popular and it only appeals to a very small audience. It also has to be intentional, which means that you’re probably not trying to write a bestseller, but rather an experimental literary piece. But if you think that confusing writing can never be published or valued, look at William Faulkner and Gertrude Stein.
Some people hate Faulkner and Stein, and think they are just literary hacks with no talent and only gimmicks. Unfortunately, these are often the same people who say that popular fiction is better than literary fiction, and these are the _same_ people for whom the myth about publication and success being linked to quality is the greatest. Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum are critics who only value literary fiction, and who even often believe that anything published popularly and with bestseller status must be a sell-out of “art” for “money.” I’d like to state firmly that I love both literary and commercial fiction and I think both arguments are driven from jealousy. Commercial writers want the status of literary writers and I bet literary writers would love the money made by commercial writers.
Okay. So we have literary critics who despise popular fiction and we have people who love popular fiction and think literary fiction is crap. Obviously, then, each set of people is going to have very different ideas as to what “good writing” is. Because aside from the boredom factor and the grammar factor, the rest of “quality” in writing is pretty darn subjective. Many of the “rules” of writing are simply popular ideas of our culture. For example, right now, our culture does not like confusing narrators, unrealistically idealized characters (Mary Sues), long passages of description, or the omniscient point of view (despite its wide use). Right now, our culture does think we should always show rather than tell, have a strong and likeable main character, and have conflict with very high stakes both personally and publicly within the story. If you follow all of these conventions, you will have a book that scores high in Popularity but it might not have any Star-quality at all. Change too many of them, and you won’t find an audience at all, but it might have extremely high Star-quality.
This is because popularity is easy to see, but star-quality remains mysterious. What made Harry Potter so successful? Certainly, there had been books about magical boarding schools before that. There have certainly been stories of epic battles between good and evil, especially when the “good” character is some kind of orphan . . . What I think makes the books stand out are the tone, which is very ironic at times, not at all the kind of tone you’d normally find in a fantasy novel, and the character of Severus Snape, who is obviously mean and nasty, yet not on the side of evil. In other words, they are things that are done _differently_ than what’s expected for the genre, and that lowers their Popularity score. But in that case, it worked. In other cases, doing something similar may result in a complete flop. Popularity and adequacy are easy to control, but it’s star-quality that makes a book really shine.
And no one knows what it is, because it often looks like what we call “bad writing” or at least unpopular. Publishers might be less likely to take a chance on a book that ends up having star-quality, because it is less known. And this is why you cannot say that published books are always better, quality-wise, than unpublished books, or that highly successful bestselling books are quality-wise better than books that sell less well. Or that books that have won literary awards are actually better than books that haven’t won such awards.