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If I had read one of Ernest Hemingway's books without knowing who the author was, I would not have been able to distinguish that the writing was exceptional, and, I daresay, Nobel prize winning!

I also began reading an Alice Munro book (She won Nobel prize in 2013), and I have still yet to notice anything particularly spellbinding about it.

Am I supposed to notice something immediately when I read works from these great authors? Or do I have to read several of their books before I can begin to see what makes them so special?

To clarify further, when I read Emerson, or even Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, the writing style is so heavy and evident that it is obvious and easy to see what makes them great.

But with Hemingway or Munro, their writing style is intentionally light and subtle, so you can't quite see it. So how do you know it's there? And how do you know it's effective? Meaning, at what point in reading The Sun Also Rises am I supposed to think to myself, this writing is so simple and neutral, that it has led me to better appreciate the story, or has created a more powerful experience for me? I just don't get that.


I guess what I'm asking is, if I've written something myself, how do I know it is not Nobel prize worthy, since I cannot distinguish the quality of what I wrote from the quality of a famous author?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Lauren Ipsum, Craig Sefton, CLockeWork, Neil Fein Jul 8 '14 at 12:12

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Hi, and welcome to Writers. I think this is a Your Mileage May Vary question, because someone is always going to point at a Proclaimed Masterpiece and call it tripe. I find Flannery O'Connor and Saul Bellow boring, and James Joyce impenetrable. Other people think anything sci-fi is for kids. "Spellbinding" is such a personal, subjective thing that I don't think there's any single concrete answer. – Lauren Ipsum Jul 7 '14 at 23:43
Struggling to understand the question.....why should you have to hold others' opinions of "good writing"? Read it yourself with a critical eye, and if you like it (read: if it meets your criteria for being a masterpiece) then it is a masterpiece in your own opinion – Shokhet Jul 8 '14 at 4:13
I think this is a perfectly valid question, it only needs to be turned upside down. Let me elaborate: Psychological research has shown that individuals differ in what they perceive as beautiful, but they agree on what they find ugly. People like different noses, but no one likes a hole where the nose should be. Similarly, people might not agree on what is good writing, but they agree on what is bad writing. So the question could be rephrased as: "I am unable to distinguish when writing is exceptionally bad. How can I tell when something is wrong with or lacking from a text?" – what Jul 8 '14 at 9:23
@LaurenIpsum I guess what I'm asking is, if I've written something myself, how do I know it is not Nobel prize worthy, since I cannot distinguish the quality of what I wrote from the quality of a famous author? – Moby Jul 8 '14 at 20:52
@Moby That's what other readers are for. Seriously. If you can't tell if your text is good or bad, you have to ask someone else. – Lauren Ipsum Jul 8 '14 at 20:57

Let's turn this into a writing question and answer it accordingly:

Nancy Kress, in Beginnings, Middles, & Ends, identified talent with vision. She says that you can learn the craft of writing, but not the vision, because it

comes from everything about you: your experiences, your imagination, your beliefs about the world, your powers of perception, your interests, your sophistication, your previous reading, your soul. Vision, sometimes called talent, is not a teachable attribute.

In short, according to Nancy Kress, you can learn how to write well, but you cannot learn how to find something interesting to write about.

But what does this, which pertains to the act of writing, have to do with the act of reading?

Very simple: Writing is reading. When you write a novel or short story or anything else, what enables you to write well? That you can tell if what you wrote is crap! You read your text, and you know if it is good or needs further rewriting. That is what makes a good writer. A bad writer cannot tell if his text is bad and where it went wrong. He cannot read. He can only type words, and feels his text is finished when he arrives at the end.

As a reader, you need the same writer's talent to tell if a text is good or, if not, what is wrong with it. Only someone who could potentially be a good writer has the talent and vision to discern good writing from bad. It cannot be taught. You have it, or you don't.

Hemingway, Munro, Emerson, and Joyce are not great authors because they write well. Opinions about that will differ. They are great because their writing contains a vision. And any good writer (or reader), although he or she might not enjoy the prose of Ulysses, can recognize and appreaciate that vision.

Now, you might object that different people (or cultures) have different standards or tastes and will not agree on what is a good book. Even master writers will disagree on what is masterful writing. That is true.

Psychological research into human-to-human attraction has long tried to find the common denominator for beauty by calculating the average beautiful face. But the truth is that the average beautiful face is just pleasant, not beautiful. It is, in truth, a bit boring. The individual beautiful face is always more beautiful to the person who likes such a face. It seems that individual taste just varies too much to distill a universal principle of human physical beauty.

But what almost everyone can agree on is what they find ugly. This is not good news for ugly people, but certain facial features are simply not found beautiful by anyone. There is widespread agreement across individuals about what constitutes ugliness.

The same goes for other aesthetic areas, for example writing. There is writing that is not masterful for anyone.

For that reason, I would propose to turn this question around. Instead of asking about mastery – which readers and writers cannot agree on – we should ask about lack of mastery:

How do I distinguish bad writing?

Because that is what ails bad writers: they cannot tell what is wrong with their texts. It may be grammatically correct, even elegantly written, and yet readers are bored instead of inspired. And why is that? The answer remains the same:

That text lacks vision.

There are texts that have vision but bore you because you do not share that vision. But there are no texts that excite anyone and do not have vision.

To not be bad (for everyone) but good (for some) your text needs vision. And vision is talent, and talent cannot be learned.

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How do you define "vision"? Because I thought the O'Connor/Bellow books I noted didn't have vision. They were boring, self-obsessed rambles. This is still YMMV. – Lauren Ipsum Jul 8 '14 at 10:16
Hmm, I admit I don't know Bellow and O'Connor. I just copied the names from your comment. I just saw that Winston Churchill got a Nobel Prize for Literature o_O So maybe the Nobel Prize is not a good example of a prize awarded for literary merit, and Bellow and O'Connor are not good examples and should be deleted from my answer. – what Jul 8 '14 at 11:13
For "O'Connor and Bellow" you can substitute any two writers who are considered to have written masterpieces. My point stands: there is no single universal benchmark for what makes a masterpiece. And it's not even just Person A's opinion vs. Person B's; what I thought was a masterpiece when I was in high school I find unreadable now. I cited those two authors because I can say I've read them (as part of a college course) and didn't enjoy either. – Lauren Ipsum Jul 8 '14 at 18:17
@LaurenIpsum, I agree. See my edit (below the line). – what Jul 9 '14 at 7:08
It's a good edit, and probably a good question. Why don't you ask it separately and extract it from this (now on hold) question? – Lauren Ipsum Jul 9 '14 at 10:06

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