How I manage to write between flare-ups and domestic duties.
Friday, 8 April 2011
G is for ... Great Writers
I can’t stand doing those Facebook Farmville/Poker games. But a year or two ago, someone sent me a quiz asking me which great writer I might be like. After doing the quiz, I came out as Edgar Allan Poe. The only reason I can surmise his name came up was he was an alcoholic and I’m known for being rather partial to my wine of an evening ;)
It is the consensus that you can teach people to write and I think this is true. In addition you can even teach people to write well enough to sell their work. But can you teach someone to be a great writer? Or will they be great if they practice enough? Is it simply a case that some have it, and some don’t?
I’ve always maintained and I’m under no illusions, I’ll never be a Booker Prize winner. I don’t profess to be a great writer in literary terms. That said, what I love to read is ‘great’ writing. To me that means literary fiction; books like Tess of the D’Urbevilles, The English Patient, Kite Runner, Memoirs of a Geisha, Wuthering Heights; some of the real classics of our time. However I bet if I asked a hundred women who like to read Romantic or Women’s Fiction who they think are great writers, Catherine Cookson, Barbara Taylor Bradford or Maeve Binchy would soon come up.
Is it just a matter of opinion? Is the accolade of greatness given depending on the amount of books sold? Is it the length of the book? Or is it the poetry of the prose?
In the last poll for The Book magazine, Harry Potter author JK Rowling was named the greatest living British writer, receiving nearly three times as many votes as second-place author, fantasy writer Terry Pratchett and previous Booker Prize winners Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro followed. Nick Hornby, Jonathan Coe, Philip Pullman and Muriel Spark made it into the top twenty.
So what exactly makes a great writer?
There are a huge variety of stories on the shelves but what makes the jump into the league of Hemingway, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, or Doris Lessing, for instance. What makes ‘Gone With the Wind’ a better love story than ‘An Affair to Remember’ or ‘Breakfast at Tiffany's?’
Trying to get a definitive list of our Greatest Writer’s, or even a leading group of contenders, is a hazardous undertaking. At worst it is harmless fun, and at best it might provoke us to consider what constitutes great writing, whether a canon has any validity, and who determines what work survives.
I’m no literary critic so I can’t speak with great authority. But to me, a great writer has the ability to connect, as if we are the only reader in the world. When I think about some of the best novels I’ve read, what jumps is that they are so effortless, they don’t read like writing. Great writing is a combination of things, but how the writer engages me and the distinctiveness of their voice is what sets them apart - that tone, essence, and breath-taking choice of words paragraph after paragraph, page after page, is what does it for me. The likes of Pinter, Stoppard and Lessing have changed the literary weather. Their work endures the years.
I guess ultimately posterity decides who the truly great writers are.
So what do you think about what makes a great writer? And who’s your favourite?