what separates a great writer from a good writer?

This was my guest post on the Penumbra eMag blog in October, 2014.  Since the blog has apparently been deleted, I’m reposting it here:

Back when I was a pretentious (and nervous) college student, I would answer the inevitable English-major question of “Greatest living author?” with “Toni Morrison.” She was a safe choice, because people wouldn’t look at me sideways for naming her, and doing so never made me feel like I was entirely lying.

Here’s the secret, though: I always named Morrison because of Beloved. Which is a great piece of literature, one of the great works of American literature. But you know what else it is? One hell of a ghost story. And I have always, always loved ghost stories. Also aliens. Dragons and monsters and magic, too.

Nowadays, I am a lot less concerned with people looking at me sideways. I am utterly comfortable with my nerdiness and geekdom. When faced with a question about great authors and what makes them great rather than good, my problem isn’t figuring out who’s acceptable, it’s trying to narrow down the field (well, and deciding not to use Neil Gaiman because I’m sure everyone would use Neil Gaiman).

I’d still name Toni Morrison, but I’d now add Octavia E. Butler and Sarah Monette. Butler is, of course, one of the greats of science fiction; Monette (who also writes as Katherine Addison) is one of the greats in fantasy and in horror.

All three of these authors have a strong sense of voice, the ability to ground a story in a very specific place, a mastery of language, and the latter two have left me with phrases that have been woven into my daily life: “God is Change,” from Butler’s Parable of the Talents and Parable of the Sower is my mantra when my life turns into total chaos. The phrase I picked up from Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths series is more vulgar, but comes in handy in many of the same situations.

But, really, lots of writers can do those things (I quote Ancient Aliens all the time; that doesn’t mean it’s great television). The quality these three authors share that sets them apart is the sense I get, when reading, that they want to do something different. All of them have surprised me: Morrison’s ghost; Butler’s near-future dystopia and her very alien aliens; Monette’s fully-realized fantasy worlds that reference literature and history and folklore that aren’t ours. There’s ambition there, and also an ability to think sideways, add more, and create something unique.

I do want to stress that there’s nothing wrong with being a good writer. As a reader, finishing a nice, solid urban fantasy is not going to leave me feeling cheated. Not every author is a great author; even great authors write mediocre books (I love John Irving, but I still haven’t managed to finish Setting Free the Bears); and frankly, to misquote Welcome to Night Vale, the line between what is great and what’s good is blurry and covered in jellyfish. But when you find those books and stories that are great, that wrap around you while you’re reading and stay with you when you’re done, there is a difference. And it’s usually because their authors were looking at things just a little bit sideways.

ETA 7/10/15:  The phrase from the Doctrine of Labyrinths is the always-handy “Fuck me sideways.”  I’m much more comfortable swearing on my own blog than on anyone else’s.  Well, unless Jason and I ever do guest-blog for each other, in which case I may swear more over there just to be a jerk.   

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