What makes good writing?

…. is one of the question discussed at Fictionaut in a thread on the “Philosophy Of Writing“. There were many fascinating answers to this challenge—ranging from “the goal should always be originality” (Ivan R.) to “write what your heart dictates” (Shel Compton)… I simply could not resist weighing in on the debate:

«Obviously everyone should write when and how s/he pleases. But there’s a but, a big, fat philosophical butt to this question, unless philosophy and the history of intellect is dead once and for all & we must fully and solely engage with a reality that knows little of the past & indeed only cares about entertainment and style.

I don’t think what your heart dictates is necessarily good writing. I also don’t think writing for entertainment produces good writing. Darryl’s criteria of “tastes good in every sense of the word” are very tempting (if only because his tastebuds must be very fine, judging from his own work) but it’s also too self-involved and poetically idiomatic to serve me well.

What is it then? For me, good writing is always edifying, always moralistic, and it always manages to transport its message, content or whatever you like to call it in a way that’s artistically worked through, as it were, namely as story. This does not even exclude poetry, which still tells story but relies on a different texture and fabric perhaps—a differently cut garment perhaps that still covers our quintessential, existential nakedness.

And naked we are, today more so than ever.

Last night, I watched the bloody execution of General Ghaddafi by a mob (don’t watch it) & I heard about the Chinese toddler being run over, the dying child being ignored by several passersby.

We need messages and morals as John Gardner demanded thirty years ago in “Moral Fiction”, morals which help us keep this civilization going, which is built on (good) art and (good) writing (not the other way around); we must not fall back into the dark night that Sigmund Freud wrote about more than 100 years ago in “Civilization and its Discontents”: «One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be “happy” is not included in the plan of “Creation”.» We must look into the abyss and return from it speaking the truth.

In extension of what Sheldon Compton and MaryAnn Kolton said already [in the thread], perhaps we need not just one, but thousands, or millions of hearts beating as one in the rhythm of social media, writing for the future of humanity. Which brings me to Writers Occupy Wall Street, but more of that in a couple of weeks from Six Degrees Left…»

In response to this, Ann Bogle asked “what is the moral of today’s writer’s nakedness?” — I think, if Albert Camus is right, who said

“The pur­pose of a writer is to keep civ­i­liza­tion from destroy­ing itself.”

then it is perhaps the nakedness of Cassandra, the messenger whose message nobody really wishes to hear and whom nobody will believe so that he’s cast out and (on the whole) disregarded (though the degree of the disrespect for writers strongly varies by country and culture)…but the hearts of men still listen, I believe.

PS. …when I told my wife how bad I felt all night after watching those videos I talked about (above), she showed me something that is apt to restore everyone’s belief in mankind: “Bystanders lift burning car to save pinned motorcyclist“. Yes to this story. Yes to humanity. It comes in so many forms—witness the mixture of grief and love implicit in the death of a British couple in their 70s that were swept away in a flash flood together. Just remember: what you write & how you write matters.

12 thoughts on “What makes good writing?

  1. An excellent summery and suggestions here, Marcus. Reality sometimes hits us in the face like a pie. I watched some of the Ghaddafi video and was struck again with the nature of human nature, which for me, is the essence of story.

  2. I am going to read the other posts/articles now — but a good post here. 

    To me, writing brings a scene or a story to a soul. Good writing manages to become invisible in the process. 

    • the story goes on (at the fictionaut forums), actually, with ever growing energy and relevance, i must say. appreciate your comment and your short formula, too, which i happen to agree with very much: in fact, i thank you for highlighting one aspect, namely that when we write we perhaps write for the soul and not (only) for the mind…

      • I just watched the video of Gaddafi, and also a video of YueYue, the run over toddler. 

        If we write about these things, we should say what we mean in a way that everyone can understand. For me, brevity helps. 

        Life is sacred. 

        • These videos set the wheels of my mind into motion (wish I hadn’t watched them). I don’t know if I achieved it but I wrote about this in as much brevity as I could muster up in my recent flash “The Sodomized Dictator“. Life is sacred indeed, that’s a beautiful formula. 

  3. Marcus, I liked your Albert Camus quote and that is also the way I see it. I am wondering, when you say “moral” is this another way of saying “social conscience”? I used to be repelled by this sort of thing. I viewed political writing as a sort of debased journalism. Now I think all good writing has a social dimension, however vague or ethereal. Otherwise writing is merely a sort of masturbation, an empty grumbling into the universe. Writers should poke the reader into engaging with the inner dialogue that, even if it is isolationist, also considers humanity.   

    • Henning, you may call it “social conscience” if the term “moral” disturbs you. When this conscience is expertly worked into the fabric of fiction (or poetry), it won’t even be noticeable as such (unlike in political journalism). At least this is what I aspire to. I like your summary sentence, too. Inner dialogue yes—always the first step of any change. Thank you.

  4. I have noticed a bloodthirstiness among individuals and groups of late. Maybe if life imitates art, and we on the frontline take Gardner’s advice, then books will yet again provide a solid foundation for a bright future. But I’m an optimist. Good article.

  5. fascinating. I agree and disagree in equal measure, but it’s a very good articulation. My problem I think is that intention and effect aren’t truly able to work together – setting out to transform another assumes all kinds of commonalities I think it’s impossible to articulate, so that you are more likely to transform others if you do not seek to. On the other hand, I do see the importance of writers having a burning desire through telling our personal truth to change the world around us. I think whereas this is a theoretical problem, the practicl problem with the “moral purpose” comes when you try to flesh it out. Contentless “desire to change” is fairly vague and scary, whilst prescribing what that change consists of seems a dangerous route to take.

    • Dan, I couldn’t agree more and if I may return the compliment, your ambivalence is articulated well. I wouldn’t want to prescribe any path or content of change either. It seems antithetical to art to do that. Your own live manifesto at eight cuts is a great example on how to occupy that space without drowning out diversity. Thanks. 

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