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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, July 25, 2008

making it good

What makes a piece of writing good? We always know how much we're enjoying something that we're reading, but it's hard to define what makes a written work enjoyable.

Establishing the criteria of quality in writing has been the business of literary critics ever since that job function has existed. But according to Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism, it is actually impossible to formulate "rules" of literary quality. If I read him correctly, he's saying that although we have a direct experience of the superior quality of one work over another, we can never finally say exactly why it is better. (Indeed, it was partly for this reason that he wanted to get away from the whole project of comparing the merits of various literary works, and see rather whether he could outline a "science" of literary criticism based on the purely objective aspects of literature--things that can be known.)

That may be OK for a literary critic, but a practicing writer does need practical guidance in how to tell good from bad, and how to steer more toward the former than the latter.

Speaking for myself, I would say that I'm guided, as a reader and therefore as a writer, by the desire to experience certain kinds of feelings while reading. Without going into the how of it, I'm seeking a kind of engaged interest--something that holds my attention and, in a certain way, compels my assent. I think that in order for this to happen, the writer's understanding of the world, people, and events must be similar to my own. I'm disengaged or put off if, while reading, I think, "That's not how the world works; that's not how people are; that's not how things happen."

I've mentioned before that the best writers make the familiar seem strange and the strange seem familiar. This perhaps is the heart of the matter for literature. The task is to create a work in which strangeness and familiarity are laminated together in endless tight layers, like the layers of hard and supple steel in a samurai sword. The more strange a work is in some respects--the fanciful world of Harry Potter, say--the more it needs to be homey and familiar in others, such as in the everyday interactions of its characters. The more quotidian the setting and its people, the more strange and mysterious the underlying universe of the story--and here I think of James Joyce and his Dubliners.

Different readers like different things. We have different issues, different interests, different life experience. Certain writers "speak" to me more than other ones do--and the same will be true of you.

As I've said many times before, I have a hard time now finding fiction that I can enjoy. For whatever reason, writers are not speaking to me. So I'm setting out to write the book I can enjoy reading. Will others enjoy it? Who knows. There are a lot of hurdles to get over before I can find that out.


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