When we’re growing up, the greatness of writers is presented to us as fait accompli. Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, and Hemingway have already been adjudicated by people who know what they’re doing and they’ve been found to have great literary worth. And if you disagree? Well then you better be able to pretend otherwise, or you’re not gonna do well in school.
And because of that, there’s a view that greatness is propagated downwards, like a royal edict. You write a book and then a discerning writer or critic reads it and announces that it’s good and then from then on, it is considered to be good.
But that’s not really true. There are plenty of book out there that’re getting pushed hard by one particular writer or one particular critic. All the time you hear said, “[famous guy] considers [obscure book] to be the greatest novel ever written.”
And that kind of statement does matter to some extent. It gets the book read by other people. But if some percentage of those people don’t feel compelled to go out and mention the book to the people that they know, then it’s going to remain obscure.
Personally, I’m not big on ranking writers. For me, it’s not useful to think about whether Harry Potter is better than A House For Mr. Biswas. I put books into only two categories: exciting and boring; worth my time and not worth my time; good and bad.
I am never in the mood to read a bad novel. Obviously, my mood does vary. But when I’m in the mood for a young adult book or a mystery novel, I go out and read the best young adult novel or mystery novel that I can find.
When I read a great literary novel, I post about it. But I also post about it when I read a great YA novel. The two might have very different aesthetic qualities, but, as a practical matter, the author of both books has done the great thing: he or he has excited me.
Exciting people is the minimum threshold for success as an author. Every novel should contain something bold and new. If a novel makes people say, “Oh, the writing, structure, plotting, and characterization are good, even though it doesn’t cover any new ground” then, to me, that is the same as saying it is bad.
To be a good writer, it’s not enough to just not make any mistakes. In fact, I’d say that (for me) not making mistakes is a really minor part of the equation. Everyone makes mistakes. Plenty of novels have ludicrous plots, horrible structure, flat characters, and bloated sentences (Wuthering Heights, for instance, has all four). But that’s okay, so long as it does something that excites the reader and pulls him through.