The difference between good and great

Interesting Economist article by one of the Booker judges about the experience of reading 132 books in 147 days, and his conclusions about what it takes for a novel to stand out. (Emphasis added)

A great deal is made of the transforming power of literature, but what does it take to become a transformer? Writing a novel as fine as “The Line of Beauty” or “The Master” requires skill, but more than that it takes courage and immense clarity of vision. In some books, such as Gail Jones’s “Sixty Lights”, those attributes show through most obviously in the strength of a single character who lingers with you long after you have put the book down. In others, like “A Blade of Grass” by Lewis DeSoto or Justin Haythe’s “The Honeymoon”, it is the single moment in which the whole tension of the book is shattered, or in “Becoming Strangers”, the only book to have been voted on to the longlist by all five judges, it is Louise Dean’s astringency of language that makes you wince — and then read on.

And then the author’s vision must stay clear until the very end. All too many of this year’s books began well, but then got lost. No book with a poor beginning ends up improving. By contrast, Nicholas Shakespeare’s “Snowleg” and Ronan Bennett’s “Havoc In Its Third Year” both started strongly and got better and better, and leaving them off the shortlist was particularly hard.

The third requirement, in addition to courage and vision, is about language. In order to capture a reader, an author must first duel with them and force them to submit to the writer’s vision. Nowhere is a writer’s guile and weaponry more finely honed than in their choice of words and metaphor. Here, more even than in the ability to draw a character, more even than in the skill needed to shape a plot, is where the difference between good and great can be seen. It sometimes took Gustave Flaubert a week to write a paragraph that pleased him, and with good reason. Mr Hollinghurst was one of the finest of wordsmiths this year, but there were others too whose work was lifted in particular by the quality of their writing, among them Shirley Hazzard and David Mitchell.

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