Thursday, August 9, 2012

Does Good Writing Exist?

A while back I asked, "Does Bad Writing Exist?"

I hope you're wondering if good writing exists. The word "exist" is the axis around which these remarks will turn.

A friend recently told me quality is "goodness of fit to requirements." Writing happens to be one of those enterprises where the requirements are not necessarily apparent.

Mere conformance to the rules of grammar is a readily apparent requirement. (You can get all Chomsky on me and say the rules of grammar are mere social convention. Then the arbiters of taste--the gatekeepers--can say that they define social convention... This way lies madness.)

There are well defined formulae for story telling going back to Aristotle. Conformance to one of these formula is another readily apparent requirement.

The virtues are well known. So whether a narrative upholds humanistic values or not is a readily apparent requirement.

You may want to cut the Gordian knot and say, "the requirement is what sells." This muddies as much as it clarifies, because bad books which are pushed real hard can sell better than good books that are not pushed as forcefully. Complaining about a bestseller like The Davinci Code that gets a huge publicity campaign is complaining about the choice to push it.

Some books stink so bad that an infinite amount of push won't make them sell. And other books are so good that merely making the public aware of them suffices to make them sell like hotcakes. There's something that inheres within a work that engages with push that helps or hurts sales. I think that something is beauty.

What is the ontological status of beauty? Is it a mere social convention or is it a thing that exists in a thing-in-itself aside from any observer to behold it? 

I am claiming something controversial: Beauty inheres within the thing itself. Not the eye of the beholder or social conventions. Beauty exists in good writing.

Social conventions are bound by pragmatic considerations to the criteria of beauty. The buying public recognizes beauty and chooses to buy accordingly. Those who sell books push their titles without much thought of beauty and thus the publishing business suffers from slack sales.

Disagreements about Objective quality stems from the fact that reality does not come labeled with this thing here as good and that thing there as crud. We subjectively estimate beauty in the thing before we think about it and before we talk about it. This creates the appearance that all quality is Subjective. Yet some books don't sell despite infinite push.

This is why Human Wave SF is such a big deal. Human Wave SF posits in old-fashioned Humanism a set of requirements. I’m eager to take the rules of English Grammar and Spelling, combine them with the values of Human Wave SF, and declare this combination to be the Requirements of Writing.
Then I’ll use this to define Quality. A couple days ago I asked Sarah Hoyt (with tongue in cheek) where I could find a certifying authority to gauge whether Finding Time was Human Wave or not.

A test for conformance to the Requirements of Writing could be largely objective. Therefore, I claim that Good Writing does indeed exist, and it is recognized as such when it conforms to beauty in the world.

It's my hope that my writing will rise to the level of being good. I've certainly made every effort to do so.


  1. An interesting view of what makes a novel good. It would explain why it's so hard to pin down why a particular book is good (beauty, especially the more... philosophical, I suppose... form of it, is a hard thing to pin down, after all), and why some books, as you said, only need people to become aware of them in order to sell really well, while others won't sell no matter what.

    It's rare (maybe impossible) for everyone to think a particular book is good, though. While there's often a consensus one way or the other (the book takes off with practically no push, or nothing can entice people to buy it), even at both of those extremes a book can look good or bad to different people, and books between those two extremes have that happen even more. How would that fit in?

    (I just looked up Human Wave SF, by the way, and it looks like a very common-sense way of looking at fiction.)

  2. What about poetry? I write, and when I say I write, I mean raw. I rarely conform to any standards, structure, or requirements. I write what comes naturally as a release. Very seldom do I write short stories or essays. I call it poetry because that's really the only category it "could" fall under.
    I don't think there is any good or bad writing, I think there is interesting and uninteresting, and I believe those adjectives are subjective to the reader.
    I just wonder how and where something like what I do fits in, or if it even does fit in. Does it make me a "bad" writer because I don't take the time to focus on the grammatical aspects or structure? I write from my heart and soul, to me that is beautiful and worthy.
    I'd love to know your thoughts.

  3. Clearly poetry is simultaneously the most constrained, and the least constrained of forms. I'm woefully ignorant of poetry, yet I can figure out when words rhyme, and count-out seventeen syllables for senryu. Moreover, I wrote a program to assist the poet in the composition of sestinas--a very difficult form. And I just like how smart I sound when I say "iambic pentameter." So, good poetry is conformance to the rules of the form in which you choose to work. But that would have to include dirty limerics.

    Yet, somehow, I think you are referring to free verse, where you have no rhyming or metric constraints.

    In such a case, I'd say the only handle on "good" poetry would be truth. Is it a true expression of human nature, or the state of your heart?

    I blogged about poetry a few mantras back where I argued that poems can speak of universals and when they do the poet should become invisible. Thus goodness for that sort of poem would be how well you get out of your own way.

    Keep something important in mind. I'm no expert in poetry. I can barely count to 17 for haiku & senryu and that's because I use my fingers.

    There once was a man from Schenectady
    Who struggled to compose synecdoche
    He penned his refrains
    But the rhymes were strained
    He sighed, “I wrote nothing but dreck today.”


Those more worthy than I: