The Standards of Prose – Realistic or Ridiculous?

imagesWho gets to decide what makes something good? Or great? I’ve often asked this question about art, books, and movies especially after I’ve read a review.

Does a critic have to possess a degree in the field they are critiquing? Must they successfully produce vast quantities of work in said field before they qualify as worthy to deliver an opinion? Or does simply earning a lot of money doing what they enjoy make them an expert in the field? And, most importantly, do we listen without question when they cast their vote for yea or nay?

These questions have been on my mind as I edited the fourth draft of my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. Admittedly, I have been (WARNING: cliché ahead) tying myself up in knots trying to predict what the agents I will query, the publishers they will solicit, and any potential readers may want out of my novel. Along the way, I may have even foolishly surrendered what I wanted from my book in my quest for perfection.

Recently, I tortured myself with chapter one rewrites until I met with my level-headed, best friend who talked me through my dilemma and put me back on track. Suddenly, writing was fun again.

But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a pea under the mattress of my brain, niggling me with doubts and fears. I reread the first lines, paragraphs, and pages of my favorite books, trying, without copying, to capture the essence of what made them great according to my perception of greatness.

About this time, I came across a brilliant essay written by Daniel Wallace titled Sentence Anxiety. Mr. Wallace eloquently stated exactly how I feel about the standards of prose to which writers must aspire if they want to be considered real writers and/or great writers. I enjoyed the entire essay, but I believe the following paragraph, my favorite, contains the spirit of the piece:

I suspect that most common readers — people who read novels but are not professionally connected to literature — simply don’t read like this. Not only do such readers lack the stylistic precision to tell actual bad writing from, say, Nabokov or Joyce amusing themselves with marginally overblown prose, such readers do not approach books with the professional reader’s exhaustion, his frantic need for newness. Few common readers, I humbly posit, read the opening pages of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and cry, “Oh, God, not another school-based bildungsroman!”

After reading the complete article, I would love to hear your opinion on the subject.  In the meantime, I’m going to continue putting all of my efforts into creating my novel. My goal is to not only write good and great sentences, but to write an enjoyable novel that readers will find hard to put down, a book that they will recommend to their friends and family, and a story that will stay with them long after its conclusion.

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