Fistfights in the Salon, or, What is Good Writing, Really?

The Fiction Writers Guild at LinkedIn has the best discussions about writing — mostly articulate, no obscenities but a lot of hot zingers. Even the trolls are civil. Like most of my recent posts on writing, this one was inspired by (mostly) lurking on these discussions.

Self-publishing is a kind of salon des refuses of the literary world, populated by writers who have been rejected by traditional publishers or decided to bypass them. Lately it has been full of turmoil about “bad” writers churning out inferior prose that makes everyone look bad, even those who have diligently honed their craft. Online discussions about writing almost always come down to this — what is good writing, and why don’t those bad writers ever listen? People jump in wielding metaphorical fists and philosophical razors, the action gets frothy and eventually peters out, exhausted. The following week it all starts up again from a different angle. Recently, there has been a vigorous discussion as to who should write reviews on Amazon — not self-published authors, some say, because they are self-serving. Not just any old reader either, but — get this — only “professional critics” who have been endorsed by editors (those all-knowing editors again!)

From the vantage point of this obscure blog, I offer my thoughts. Entering a minefield here — strap on flame-proof armour!

Before I was a writer, I was a reader (and remain one), so I approach the question from that point of view. I think it’s impossible to define good (or, for that matter, bad) writing in technical terms, but “good” books have specific effects on readers.

A good book leaves an imprint on the reader’s mind, generating longings for it between reading sessions. Especially good books have this effect long after being read, resulting in re-readings, sometimes many of them. The characters become friends whose company the reader misses, and the settings they inhabit are dream-places the reader wants to revisit.

This is irrational stuff, or perhaps “sub-rational.” As a reader, I relate to books in an emotional way. Some generate positive emotions, others are repellent. When reading a book that delights me, I’m not consciously aware of technical issues. I may notice them after several re-readings, but by then I don’t care because that book has become one of “my” books, sort of like a friend whose minor flaws I am willing to overlook. It’s entirely possible to become attached to books that are technically imperfect, although too many obvious typos or other errors jolt the reader out of the story on the first reading, preventing the bonding process.

If readers’ attachments to certain books are emotionally-based, no wonder it’s impossible to come up with a definitive set of criteria for good writing. A rational approach lends itself to creating such a list, but that belongs in the realm of academic literary criticism, which is not what most readers engage in when they give an opinion on a book they have read. This is actually a good thing for writers because it broadens the realm of action, throwing open an infinity of creative possibilities. Think of a blank canvas and a full spectrum of pigments as opposed to the outlines and little paint pots in a paint-by-numbers set. Why would writers want to fence themselves in with a write-by-numbers set of rules?

This is why discussions that try to define “good writing” frequently become heated and are never conclusive. For writers who are looking to do something other than write, they can be amusing, and for bloggers in need of topics they are useful.