I’ve been wondering about this for some time now and while there is a no definitive answer here are some thoughts I’ve collected along the way:
I find myself preferring a writer who engages me on an emotional and intellectual level. If they don’t, and especially if the writing seems flat, I’m unlikely to continue reading their work. I read because I want to feel something and learn something. To step out from my regular places and thought patterns. As the saying goes – make them laugh, make them cry, take them somewhere.
Complex writing can be great writing – see the recognised classics – but it needs to flow or I lose patience. There are authors who mystify me with their swirling prose and back to front timelines. If I know where I am in the story that’s fine, but if I’m lost I lose interest. I also look for flow of the words and structures. The best writers make it seem smooth and effortless, though clearly it is a result of graft, revision and polish.
For me, great writers put their brand of persona into the fabric of their writing. It may be in how they speak to their reader within the book, the kind of humour they employ or the viewpoint and attitude or philosophy of their writing. In some cases, this personality transcends the story and almost becomes an in-joke of itself. I find this refreshing and enjoyable because it develops another layer to the writing. In a way it builds a feeling of connection of the reader with the author as they tell a new story.
I like a good plot as much as the next person, perhaps more so. If the plot fails to move along or surprise, I’m likely to fall asleep. The writing may be great, all the other ingredients may be brilliantly executed, but if the plot sucks – I’m out of there. What makes for a page turner may be at odds with ‘great’ writing, I am though convinced that brevity and economy of words is part of the sweet-spot for a great book.
I’ve scanned several books side by side, hopping from one to the next, simply to understand the mechanics of established writers better. In most cases, they use similar structures, variety, visual and sensory descriptions and impeccable punctuation. Those books that fail in these respects tend to stand out like a sore thumb. That said, if the mechanics are readable and the other ingredients are strong, I’ll read on. I remain mystified at the omission of double speech marks from books, but I guess I’m in the minority on that one.
What makes a book ‘great’?
All the above and then some. The perfect wave, the enduring story.
Ultimately I believe it is a personal preference, accepting that classics are decided over many years. For example, will Harry Potter be considered ‘great’ writing? I suggest we’ll see in thirty years. Memorable and highly successful, no doubt. Great? Time will tell. War Horse on the other hand is more likely to be lauded as ‘great’ and with some justification.
That’s all for now folks