What makes great writers great? I’ve ruminated on this topic before, but the subject is so fascinating that I find myself revisiting it each time I read or reread a truly great story.
There have been many great writers throughout history: Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and later, Hemingway, Golding, Faulkner, Steinbeck, and many others writing in a multitude of languages across the world.
Most of these writers differ significantly from one another in style and subject matter. So in what sense can they be said to share the same appraisal?
What makes a writer great, anyway?
And why is it that so many remain relevant today when the world they lived in, the manner and style of their writing, has changed? Just compare Shakespeare to Hemingway, for example.
Something timeless must surely be part of the lens through we recognise great writing. It must be something that not only focuses on the historical context, but locates in the work an immediate relevance to today’s society, despite the anachronisms and eccentricities of language and nationality.
It can not be style alone, although all great writers have it in abundance, because style succumbs to anachronism.
Nor can it be solely form, because form evolves with time. Linear story telling, for example, is increasingly competing with non-linear forms.
The essence of great writing therefore has to contain something that excludes change from its definition because it is already fully evolved.
The set of universal values, perhaps?
Great Writers and Universal Values
Although many academics argue against the objectivity of universal values, I believe that they do exist and have always done so. Great thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo, Siddhartha Gautama and Mahatma Gandhi have, in one way or another, argued that core values do not fall out of fashion or become irrelevant. Fairness, generosity, compassion, and love form some of the values which ennoble us as a species and whose absence or negation exposes the worst in us.
Throughout history great writers have been humanity’s conscience precisely because they recognise the timeless relevance of those values. They write stories that track the consequences to societies and individuals when love is supplanted by hate, generosity by greed, duty by ambition – when the values that make us human are ignored or negated: A Cathedral’s newly added spire that threatens to collapse under the weight of pride (The Spire), the families and villages that are torn apart by greed (The Pearl), the blind ambition that leads to the murder of the rightful king and the eventual death of his usurper (Macbeth).
It is this tireless affirmation of universal human values that renders great writing immortal and perpetually relevant to us all. Long may it continue to do so.
Great writers write stories that affirm universal values.