What makes an author great? Is it how many books he or she sells? Is it the phrasing of words an author uses? Is that what makes them a great writer? Is it better to be Ernest Hemingway or Victor Hugo?
Is it the emotion the author arouses in the reader? Is it the story? What is the measuring stick we use to determine who is a great author, who is a mediocre one, and who should be kept away from a pen or pencil entirely?
I’m going to be honest. There are authors, playwrights, and screenwriters that many people have placed in the annals of greatness that I find unbearable. Some, I even find, dare I say, mediocre. Of course, once I admit this there are those who will say I’m jealous or that I don’t know what I’m talking about because I’m unknown (which, I guess, is the litmus test for taste and knowledge).
I agree, I may not know what I’m talking about. I may also be jealous, but that’s not what I’m trying to figure out. I want to know what makes an author great.
We can all list authors that have passed the test of time.
But what is the quality that makes it so?
What if the author has a great story, but can’t write it well? What if he can write well, but a story is not among the words? What if he has a story and can write it well, but the writing is emotionless and disconnected from the reader? Some may say you need all three. With that, I agree. There are those, however, who have been deemed great authors who don’t have all three, at least in my opinion.
Is that what it comes down to? Opinions. Opinions of people who work at certain places (The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal). Or is there some objective standard we can use?
All writers would love to be known as a great author, but as each generation changes the qualification, the measuring stick seems a bit more arbitrary.
How many times has a great work been rejected? Some of them have been rejected 20 or more times. Was the work subpar then because many of the gatekeepers thought it wasn’t any good. Or is it good now because the world said otherwise? Who is right?
My wife loves the book “Jane Eyre,” and I thought it was decent. I “sped” through the unabridged version of “Les Miserables,” but it took my wife two years (she kept stopping and reading other books). A lot of the history, she thought, could’ve been cut. I didn’t mind it.
It brings me back to my original question.
What makes something great?
Even in many of my rejection letters over the years the agents admit that the publishing world is a subjective business. So, in essence, they are looking for something THEY like rather than something that’s good. Sometimes the two meet and sometimes they don’t.
This makes breaking into the industry incredibly difficult. Why? Because your work isn’t being accepted or rejected because of its quality. It’s being accepted or rejected based on some other unmentioned reason. As one agent said, they didn’t “fall in love with my query."
Where do you go from there? In the end, what does a query have to do with my story? (I know it's the way the system is set up, but it doesn't make it any less ridiculous.)
Why does any of this matter?
Well, the one thing I’ve come to realize is that many of the “experts” rely solely on their taste to determine what is quality anything. You name it: movies, plays, literature, music. The problem is when you try to gauge the quality of something based on your tastes. In the end, the “experts” don’t know what makes a book great anymore than I do, or you do. Let’s face it. We’ve all read books that were on the NY Times Bestseller List that we thought shouldn’t have been there. I can think of one immediately, and it’s a book I loathe.
How do we judge something with no objective standard? We all have opinions about books, and more than likely they all differ.
Are they same books that are popular today going to be lauded as great in two hundred years. If not, what happened to them in that time? Is greatness determined by popularity? If so, we've ruined the word "greatness."
So, back to the beginning. What makes an author great? Can we find the answer? Is there an answer?
Who knows? I know what books I like and maybe that's all that matters. Who cares what other people say or think. If you like a book by a "non-great" author, so what!
It's better to have read a "bad" book and loved it than no book at all.
Scott Keen is the author of three young adult fantasy novels, Scar of the Downers, Rise of the Branded, and War of the Downer King.