You may as well ask somewhat what the best beach in the world is or the place to get the perfect pizza. Everyone has varying opinions on these two topics just like everyone has varying opinions about what great writing actually means. What constitutes great writing for an individual is often as layered and personal as any confessional booth revelation.
For myself good writing hits at both the emotional and cerebral level.
From a cerebral standpoint strong writing always begins and ends with characters. Are they strong characters and highly fleshed out? Do I connect with them on a mental, emotional, or spiritual level? Do I care about their fates good or bad? I’ve consistently found that if the answers to these questions are “yes” than more often than not it is great writing.
Also you have to look at it from a plot/structural/theme position. Is the plot consistent and does it make sense? Or if it is more free-form like say Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho” is the inconsistency consistent? I know that sounds like a contradiction in terms but anyone who’s ever read a free form or anti-novel knows what I’m talking about. In terms of setting and structure is it a place/location/era that I can relate to and if not can the author make me care about it? Additionally, when it comes to themes are they themes that speak to the general human condition or beliefs and trials that I struggle with every day?
Lastly is dialogue. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read novels that were ruined by slipshod dialogue. Take for example Michael Crichton’s posthumous work “Micro.” The dialogue was akin to this: “Are you scared?” “Yes I’m scared.” “Don’t be scared.” Excuse me while I regurgitate. Sometimes you can get away with this if you are a minimalist writer like Cormac McCarthy but most times you can’t. In any case McCarthy’s novels have the distinction of being stripped of all ostentation, so light dialogue at least reflects the writing style. Great writing often contains dialogue that rings true for the reader. What I mean by that is that a person reading the novel can say to themselves, “Yeah I could see someone saying that in real life.” Of course the dialogue is often in the context of the era the novel is set in, so it can be hard to judge dialogue from say 3rd century Rome. However, most readers will know if a novel’s dialogue rings false.
That takes care of the cerebral.
Now for the emotional.
Great writing keeps you up way past midnight when you have to get up at five in the morning. Great writing has gobs of food and drink on the pages because you just couldn’t risk eating lunch and missing a crucial part of the story. Great writing gets you in trouble with the wife for not doing the dishes. Great writing makes you think about it days after the last page has been turned. Great writing makes you cry, laugh, shout for joy, and throw the book across the room when one of your favorite characters dies….and then walk across the room, pick up the book and keep reading. Great writing makes you feel like the characters are a part of your own family. Great writing leaves you hollow inside when that last sentence is read. Great writing makes you choose between spending your last dime on the latest novel or eating dinner. Great writing leaves you physically hungry but spiritually filled to overflowing. Great writing makes paper cuts painful bliss, holy scars, badges of honor writ in blood and flesh. Great writing makes you feel emotionally, mentally, and spiritually drained. Great writing makes you want to go out and buy all of that author’s other works. Great writing inspires you to find your own voice and write your own words. That last is maybe the best indicator of great writing.
While I acknowledge that great writing is judged at the cerebral and emotional level, I feel that the second is much more important than the first. From a cerebral stance somebody can say that “Finnegan’s Wake” is an incredible piece of literature. Somebody else could read the novel and from an emotional standpoint think it is nothing but unmitigated trash–characters, dialogue, and plot be damned. As my wife often says when I review films and I’m too harsh, “Remember monkey, the best movie ever made is someone’s least favorite movie and the worst movie ever made is someone’s favorite movie.” Ah my wife is so wise!
Great writing will always hit you in the gut, that deep dark part of the colon where the depth and breadth of emotion resides. Don’t ever turn a deaf ear to what the gut says. The gut is always right.