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?

Until another day

Bye for now


Norma Murray said...

You are getting a bit deep for me perhaps. Fashionable or popular writers are often mistaken for great writers. My choice? Apart from the very obvious like DH Lawrence, I'd go for John Steinbeck.
(I've tried to make you a 'friend' on FB, but for some reason it says 'please try later.')

Brianna said...

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.

These words spoke to me as I am the same way. Often I get discouraged because if I'm not going to be a prize winning author or my book won't be taught in universities then what's the point?

After the A-Z challenge (which is how I found your blog by the way) I'm going to focus on some of my favorite 'great' authors. Review their lives and study their works and pick apart their techniques. It was fun in college and I'm itching to do it again.

Anyway, I'm glad to have found your blog and look forward to reading more.
Brianna @ Pocketful of Playdough

Siv Maria said...

I think Great writers are alot like great artists. They make us feel emotions that relate to us and not at us. My persoanl favorite is Charles Dickens :)

Irish Nomad said...

Gerard Woodward, Louise Dean, JG Farrell, Colm Toibin are the people I go to, or their books at least, in search of inspiration and great writing. I have also swooned, literally, over Anne Enright. Also adore Marilynn Robinson. Oh the list could go on; better quit now :)

Colette McCormick said...

I believe that I came out as Virginia Woolfe. Don't know what that says about me. I don't aspire to be great just the best that I can be.

Sue Guiney said...

I agree that popular often gets confused with great, although they are often not the same at all. Very often the authors who are eventually deemed great weren't popular in their lifetimes at all - or at least that's what I tell myself on my most frustrated days :-) But I think the authors who create characters that live on well after you've finished reading about them are the ones that are great . That's what makes Anthony Trollope, George Elliot and Jane Austen great. And now I'd include Jane Smiley and Marilynne Robinson.

Fennie said...

Gosh, Debbie. I am with you absolutely. Not sure where we are going but I am with you. Let's have much too much wine and pretend we are Edgar Allen Poe, or maybe vodka and pretend we are Jeffrey Bernard, who is a great stylist if not a great writer. I think Rose Tremain is a great writer, though I'm not sure everyone would agree with me and James Stephens, too. There has to be imagination, but imagination grounded in reality. And then there's style. Someone like Jane Shilling is a supreme stylist but not a great writer, though I like her well enough. Flaubert was both a great stylist and a great writer but at the end of the day (and I hope a sword will not come out of the heavens to strike me dead) he is just a tad boring. The dishcloth is wrung and wrung and wrung until it is quite dry.

I don't know if Flaubert drank. he had many other vices so I expect he did and it is remarkable how many writers need alcohol to write. JB was told he could be a good journalist if he would only stop drinking, to which he replied that he was incapable of putting one word after another unless he was drunk. I'd love to be able to drink copiously (and might even then be a better writer) but I have a liver that is about as useless as the rest of me and is quite incapable of processing alcohol in any sort of literary appropriate quantity. Still best wishes to you Debbie. Write well! Fxx

Deirdra Eden-Coppel said...

I love your site and as I browsed your blog I decided to award you the Powerful Woman Writer Award.
Go to and pick up your award.

Steph said...

It's hard to determine greatness in writing, as opinions will differ among readers, as opinions differ in all matters involving humans!
I have read stories by writers that have been labeled 'great' and enjoyed just as much a story written by an unknown author!
I really enjoy reading Haruki Murakami books. I also read a lot of non-fiction. I enjoy different styles.