Books, Culture

So You Think You Can Write?

Do you ever wonder what is good writing? Seems to me the first question to answer is “what is good?”. Only then can one decide if what one has written is good. Trying to answer what is good leads us naturally to Plato. I’m going to pick Plato’s Theaetetus where Socrates debates Protagoras’ famous maxim that “Man is the measure of all things”. In other words what you think is good is good to you. As Socrates noted, what may be good to you might be crap to most other people. So what are we to do?

Sticking with Plato, in “Crito” Socrates argues against fleeing the city to avoid his execution. He argues that since the city made laws it thinks are good for it and since Socrates himself chose to live in that city then he must necessarily abide by the judgement of the city including the judgement that he be executed. Similarly, we might determine that what is good writing is good only if other writers (which ones – the majority, the influential ones etc) judge the work to be good.

When the impressionists started out, they were derided by traditionalists. Now no one with a “good” eye thinks Monet inferior to Titian. Or do they? Who knows? What we can say from observation is that what is good for a group of people may not be so for a different group. Rome thought it was good to erase Carthage. It’s unlikely the Carthaginians thought so. The biblical God thought it was good to erase the first born of all Egyptians. It’s also unlikely the Egyptians thought likewise.

In art, we can safely say that “good” depends on genre/style/education and experience of the reader/viewer/listener and so on. Hunter S Thompson may be good if you like that jumbled up style but for me personally he’s just a nuisance. I think Vasily Grossman’s Life And Fate not only “good” but excellent but many westerners don’t have a clue who he is. Back to Plato’s Crito, Socrates argues one should take advice from experts – on fitness from a trainer, on health from a doctor and so on. In modern science we are trained to not trust one source but to critique and seek out a multitude of views. Likewise in writing, “good” can be assumed to be by common consent.

To get back to the point then, how do I assess if what I’ve written is good? I think I’ve written something good when I’m excited about my writing with the same heat of excitement I have after reading a really “good” book or author. A bit of circularity there. If despite my heat, virtually everyone else thinks my work is crap then I may well be self-delusional and mad. Vincent van Gogh died with few people thinking his work good but today we all think he was a genius. So what is “good”? Perhaps only the gods know.

(Reproduced from my comments on a blog about good writing)

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