A question and an answer

What is the difference between good writing and bad writing? Or to be more precise, what is the difference between great writing and merely functional writing? And is there even any profit in considering the question?

It is often argued that great writing is just a matter of taste. And to a certain degree this is true. A blind man will never be able to appreciate the work of a visual artist. And I have determined through scientific testing that your intelligence level vastly affects what you can enjoy and what you can not. To wit, if I am tired and brain dead I don’t like things that I would otherwise love and love things that I would otherwise hate.

But when people say that great writing is just a matter of taste they are not claiming that people’s limitations affect what they are able to enjoy. Rather, they are arguing that there is no objective standard by which we might say that some writing is functional and other writing is great. This view point is seriously misleading. I would even go so far as to argue that it is completely false.

It is true to argue that mankind will never be able to articulate or understand a complete objective understanding of what makes writing great. But that has nothing to do with the issue with of whether such a standard does exist. Human beings are not the measure of reality. And this distinction matters because something that we can never fully obtain is still worth striving for.

In fact, I would argue that artistic expression in western world has gone down hill precisely because artists have come to believe that man is the measure of all things and they have given up striving to live up to any other measure. The builders of the Cathedrals lavished great care even on the unseen parts because the believed that the measure of good art was not limited to the measure of man. Modern architecture is designed solely around the need to shock or impress the mind of man. In my mind, there is no contest as to which is the better work of art.

And I think that a similar observation could be made about art in general. Once man became the measure of all things, the only things that matters where those things that could get a strong reaction out of mankind. And those were generally things that shocked, titillated, or horrified. Thus, the great and good will not consider a work of fiction to be serious unless it is one part porn, one part ghost tale, and one part freak show. And yet, their serious works do not compare to that which came before them and in their more honest moments they recognize this.

If you share this observation, then the answer to my last question becomes obvious. If acting as if man is the only measure of what makes things great drags the arts down then it is obvious that ones conception of what makes writing “great” matters. And thus there is some value in considering the question of what makes writing great how ever minor that value might be.

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