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GD Deckard
Posted: Friday, January 16, 2015 9:22 PM
Joined: 7/23/2014
Posts: 159

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal quotes essayist Arthur Krystal, who wrote the following for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

     "We live in a great sprawl of what passes for literature, a diffusion prophesied years ago by Houston Baker, a president of the Modern Language Association who declared that choosing between Virginia Woolf and Pearl Buck is 'no different from choosing between a hoagie and a pizza.'  And in this blur of the present, when every book, every critical evaluation, is almost immediately swept aside by another, there seems little of consequence....

     Although serious writers continue to write in the hope that time will forgive them for writing well, the prevailing mood welcomes fiction and poetry of every stripe, as long as the reading public champions it. And this I think is a huge mistake. Literature has never just been about the public (even when the public has embraced such canonical authors as Hugo, Dickens and Tolstoy).

     Literature has always been a conversation among writers who borrow, build upon, and deviate from each other's words."


Remember the Great Books of the Western World? The first three volumes in the set is about The Great Conversation, authored by Robert Maynard Hutchins. It is an index of great ideas, cross referenced throughout all the great books. You can trace significant ideas in an ongoing conversation from The Iliad to Waiting for Godot. "The tradition of the West is embodied in the Great Conversation that began in the dawn of history and that continues to the present day".

Is anything like this going on today?


Is anyone writing a "great" novel?

I'm not. The Phoenix Diary is not a string of emotional formulas; it is an adventure in ideas and that marginalizes its readership. But "great" never crossed my mind for reasons anyone reading it can readily surmise.


Has anyone even considered writing a "great" novel?


--edited by GD Deckard on 1/16/2015, 9:28 PM--

Amber Wolfe
Posted: Friday, January 16, 2015 10:12 PM
Honestly? No. I don't kid myself into thinking I could write a 'great' novel. What I strive to create are 'entertaining' stories that are fun for me to write and fun for others to read. If I accomplish this much, then I'm happy I've no need to write one of those 'great' novels.
Mimi Speike
Posted: Friday, January 16, 2015 10:54 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1016

Bless you for this, GD. You have lifted my spirits. I've had a hard week on Sly. The Virgin Mary keeps moving the goal post on me.


I do think I'm writing a great novel, in that I believe it's great fun, my idea of fun, screwball characters, flamboyant language and endless zany digressions.


My taste in books is not the bestsellers, except for Gone With The Wind, and a few others. Hell, many others. Catch 22. What recently? I can't think right now. I'm not at home, where I can glance over my bookshelves. I just read for the second time A Fool And His Money, the doctoral thesis of a woman at Oxford, written around 1975. It is a history assembled from the fourteenth century town records of a quarrelsome French provincial town. The prose style is to die for. It reads like a novel. I just tracked Ann Wroe down, (ain't the internet grand?) she's now an editor at The Economist. I emailed her about how much I love her book. This morning I got a lovely reply. She very graciously gave me permission to swipe a few of her gorgeous descriptions of an unforgiving landscape, which I have done, sparingly. Her land sounds an awful lot like mine, rocky terrain populated with a rock-head-stubborn people.


I'm not one who writes to a market. I do my own thing. I've said it before and I'll say it again. I would be thrilled to be the Amanda McKittrick Ross of the twenty-first century.


--edited by Mimi Speike on 1/17/2015, 12:28 AM--

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Saturday, January 17, 2015 12:34 AM

First of all, there's the trap of "great." Who defines that something is great? Literature professors?


To say, "I pronounce this story—which didn't sell all that well great because the writer used lots of circumlocution, and took three paragraphs to say what most people do in ten words—as being  great," is snobbery. These are the same people who refused to even look at science fiction for decades, but not talk learnedly about it in classes on people like Asimov.


To show how knowledgeable these people are, Ms. Asimov reported that she and Isaac once sat in on a class on his work at a noted university. The professor expounded at length on the themes and the meaning of the various happings as they related to the human condition. At the conclusion, Asimov told the professor that he enjoyed the lecture, and the explanations of his thinking. Then he added, "Of course it's all bullshit, though."


Te first thing the article's writer did was give Charles Dickens an exemption because he sold well and was highly popular. So it appears that part of his criteria is that great writing is identified by not being all that popular.


But forget all that. His claim that all writing is a conversation among writers is absurd. Obviously, the man hasn't realized that things become successful because they sell in enough numbers to make it practical. Obviously, one trend will influence the next, and will suggest ideas. Just as obviously, whatever is popular when you begin writing a story will have waned by the time you write, sell, and edit your new story. So of course you need to come up with something different. An idiot can see that, but apparently Mr. Crystal, not being a novelist is unaware of it. But then, he's writing for educators, not publishers or readers.


Personally, I'm not looking to be called great. I'll be satisfied if I can make it up to mediocre.

Atthys Gage
Posted: Saturday, January 17, 2015 1:05 AM
Joined: 6/7/2011
Posts: 467

Gosh yes.  All the time. I'm convinced the book I'm working on now will be a Great Novel. It's about love and hate and jealousy and guilt and rivalry and the imminent destruction of innocence. What could be more epic? What could be greater?


Of course, I am also quite sure it's "greatness" will go unrecognized in my own life time. (Alas,poor me.)  Of course, none of the novels I've finished so far seem like Great Novels.  Maybe my greatest novels will never be finished. My summa opus will probably not even be started.  Because once you start writing them, you get all bogged down with verbs and punctuation and all that twiddly nonsense about plot and character, and then, well, greatness has to ride in the backseat, crowded in between the other stowaways, such as "beautiful writing"  and "social relevance" and "big ideas."  Sometimes that sort of thing sneaks past the checkpoint, but it's risky. 

As Peter OToole's character said in "The Stuntman:"  "If you've got something to say, you better slip it in while they're laughing and crying and jacking off over the sex and violence."

I've got great novels in me. Whether they'll ever get out is another matter. I always think the novel I'm working on at the moment is "great" and "important." By the time it's done, I'm just glad to see it limp across the finish line in one piece. And that's the way it should be,  Did Nabokov think Lolita was a "Great Novel?"  What of Gatsby? Moby Dick? To Kill A Mockingbird? Did visions of immortality dance before those great authors as they wrote, or were they just trying to get the book inside their head on to paper, more or less intact? 

The book I'm writing today is the most important thing I've ever written. Afterwards? It'll just be another book. Hopefully it'll be a good book, original and entertaining and maybe even beautiful in places, but great? That's above my pay grade. Hopefully, when someone else calls it great, I'll be too busy working on my next great novel to notice. 

--edited by Atthys Gage on 1/17/2015, 2:07 AM--

Carl E. Reed
Posted: Saturday, January 17, 2015 4:42 AM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Instead of answering directly I am going to bemuse and exasperate a large portion of the subscribing readers to this thread by doing a ten-quote word collage of "The Greats".


Why? Why the f--k would I do that? 


Because I had to. Because every time I tried to type out a few tepid words of response these quotes arose in my mind like pre-Socratic epigrams; like blue-faced dead men entombed in ice with journals of world-altering wisdom no one will ever read snug in their breast pockets (scant months before the thawing summer sun melts flesh, bone, leather and paper into disintegrative ephemera,  rushing all downriver to that abyssal ocean where leviathan groans in the deep); like insectile paperclips; like waltzing refrigerators; like a Venn diagram whose intersection captures the most pertinent and telling comments from sets "literary" and "epistemological"; like a dharma dog insistently pawing your troused leg whilst riveting your gaze with fixed unblinking stare; like a brace of moon-silhouetted napalmed moths cindered during the Tet Offensive in '68; like a manic-depressive ballpoint pen; like a staple in your gut inserted by an owlishly-blinking surgeon to be liquefied by crematory fire at close of day; like the colors black and white and red; like the whisper of ash sifting down upon half-buried eidolons of fearfully-recalled experience; like shrapnel like lemon like pepper like sex. 


These quotes are not arranged haphazardly but in a natural, albeit somewhat elliptical associative order of chronological progression and tangential rumination. They are, I hope, of lasting interest to persons of scholarly/artistic bent intent on sifting the real from the irreal, as far as this larger, overarching question of inter- and intra-writer conversation goes and the question of what constitutes a "great" novel to both the literati and the public at large.


I am pulling your leg, of course. I am dead serious. 




Don’t try to solve serious matters in the middle of the night.

                                                                                                — Philip K. Dick


To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.

                                                                                                — Herman Melville


If you become popular it is always because of the worst aspects of your work.

                                                                                                — Ernest Hemingway


The artist cannot look to others to validate his efforts or his calling. If you don't believe me, ask Van Gogh, who produced masterpiece after masterpiece and never found a buyer in his whole life.
                                                                                                ― Steven Pressfield


You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.

                                                                                                —Ray Bradbury


Atmosphere, not action, is the great desideratum of weird fiction. Indeed, all that a wonder story can ever be is a vivid picture of a certain type of human mood. The moment it tries to be anything else it becomes cheap, puerile, and unconvincing. Prime emphasis should be given to subtle suggestion—imperceptible hints and touches of selective associative detail which express shadings of moods and build up a vague illusion of the strange reality of the unreal. Avoid bald catalogues of incredible happenings which can have no substance or meaning apart from a sustaining cloud of colour and symbolism.


                                                                                                — H . P. Lovecraft


Reading the very best writers—let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy—is not going to make us better citizens. Art is perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything. He also told us that all bad poetry is sincere. Had I the power to do so, I would command that these words be engraved above every gate at every university, so that each student might ponder the splendor of the insight.
                                                                                                ― Harold Bloom


America is proud of what it does to its writers, the way it breaks and bedevils them, rendering them deluded or drunken or dead by their own hands. To overpower its tender spirits makes America feel tough. Careers are generally short.

                                                                                                — Martin Amis


My belief is that art should not be comforting; for comfort, we have mass entertainment and one another. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish.

                                                                                                 — Joyce Carol Oates


I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.

                                                                                                 — Franz Kafka      

--edited by Carl E. Reed on 1/20/2015, 12:10 PM--

GD Deckard
Posted: Saturday, January 17, 2015 8:29 AM
Joined: 7/23/2014
Posts: 159

Five responses, five different takes on the "great" book, all thoughtful opinions. This is intelligent discourse at its finest. Too bad we can't meet in a little cafe somewhere and talk all night.


I think great books are not defined by others so much as they change people. Our world changes after reading one and in our world, that one becomes a great book. I was changed a little by To Kill A Mocking Bird, Silent Spring, Stranger in a Strange Land, Catch 22, the list is long and like all lists, boring. What stands out is the change wrought by a great book in how we consider people, treat the environment, define humanity, deal with war, etc. Great books change us.


--edited by GD Deckard on 1/17/2015, 8:31 AM--

Posted: Saturday, January 17, 2015 11:00 AM
Joined: 4/28/2014
Posts: 40

I think great books are written from our feelings, not our words. Great novels come when we open up and share the deepest part of ourselves through our characters and their actions. There is a lot of energy in emotions, and without it words are sterile and don't have an impact on the reader. I do agree with GD that we build ideas, that's evolution. I think each writer will help continue to change the literary world when they put something out that means something to them.

Zach Heher
Posted: Saturday, January 17, 2015 11:27 AM
As much as I would like to write a great novel someday, I really don't plan on doing so currently write now. Even a graphic novel seems like a stretch. 

When AuthorStand was around I specifically wrote a comedy series called "Weird News" to entertain, and it did its job well. It made readers laugh and it made readers cry. They're were a couple of haters but it never bothered me. Creativity has no limits. I never thought about writing a novel nor had any plans on writing one.

Not every writer wishes to make a great novel. Some writers try way too hard to make great novels and the end project doesn't exactly go well. Look at Stephanie Myer *Audience booing* Ok! Ok! I understand that there are people who (surprisingly) like her work but let's be honest here. The Twilight Saga are not great novels. The writing is bad, the characters are unlikable, and the concept of vampires has been ruined.

When I think of a great novel I think about classics like The Great Gatsby and Lonesome Dove how much time and development put into them so they can earn the title of a great novel. Now can I write something along those lines, no. But that doesn't mean that I could try someday. Walt Disney once said that dreams can come true if you have the courage to pursue them, and that's how novels start out. If you work hard, keep studying and practicing, and be sure to learn from your mistakes I guarantee that you can come up with something extraordinary.
Charles J. Barone
Posted: Saturday, January 17, 2015 1:03 PM
Joined: 7/18/2014
Posts: 121

I don't see myself as a great writer who will ever write a great book. It's all well and good to strive for that goal and write that one great novel of course. A few hundred or few thousand people buy it, marvel at the intricacies of the sentences, and set it on the coffee table so all their friends can see they have it. Of course they never read it in its entirety.


My aim is to be a commercial writer, swimming along somewhere (some day) at the lower end of the scale while writing and selling books that people actually read. I'll turn out one or two books a year, tripe that people will buy in paperback, read and enjoy. 


Margaret Mitchell could be considered one who wrote a great book, and it's the only one she wrote. Many people have read it, even me - once - because I had to. She of course is considered an 'author' rather than a writer.


My favorite writer, not author, is Mickey Spillane. I've read most of his books, several times. And I enjoy them as much at the 3rd or 4th reading as the first. He considered himself a writer rather than author, one who wrote for the blue collar guy. At last count his books have sold well over 250 million all over the world and they're still selling in large numbers.


If there's a point to this post, it's which would you rather be? Would you prefer being an in the trenches writer churning out a book or two a year, enjoying some commercial success and being recognized while alive? Or do you crave to be an 'author' who pens a novel that becomes recognized as 'great' a century after you're dead?

Mimi Speike
Posted: Saturday, January 17, 2015 2:14 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1016

I have made no choice. I write what I need to write, and I am willing to let the chips fall as they may. 


There are readers for both approaches. Either way, done well, is to be celebrated. I am chewing through The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, alongside more artsy, some would call it, work, and I love both styles. Characters and their more/less cerebral antics must be brought to life. I have to believe. And I appreciate a bit of finesse with language.


--edited by Mimi Speike on 1/17/2015, 3:20 PM--

Atthys Gage
Posted: Saturday, January 17, 2015 2:18 PM
Joined: 6/7/2011
Posts: 467

Damn, Carl! That is a fantastic collection. I'm going to hang on to that.


Reading what I wrote late last night, it seems pretty random and unfocused, so I think I'll take a fresh stab at coherence and relevance here in the coffee morning. 


Always, in the process of writing, I am convinced that I am grasping toward greatness. It seems the most important thing in the world. Even when I'm laboring through an uncooperative first draft and obviously mired in muck that will all have to be cleared away in the second, I feel like what I'm doing is vital and rich and worthwhile. 


The final product is never quite what I expected. 


Don't get me wrong, I love my own books, but they are all drastically flawed. They inevitably grow up in ways I didn't really plan or expect. I'm enough of a control freak that this always bothers me a little, but I also know it's unavoidable. In fact, it's a good thing. It means your work has life and energy. So you say goodbye, wish them well, and start your next book, full of the fresh, misguided conviction that this time you'll see it through all the way, and it will be perfect and magnificent. 


That's how it is for me, anyway. And I think that's for the best. Without a deluded sense of self-importance, how would I find the energy to lift pen to paper? 


Probably, to the reader, a book like Spark seems like a frolic, a trifle. For good reason. It is both frolic and trifle. But it has its moments. Structurally, it's inverted. The apparently serious story with the apocalyptic overtones (the Pocket, the skulks, the Duchess) is absurd and ultimately trivial, while the apparent trivia of day-to-day life (boyfriends and basketball) is, obviously, what really matters.  In a nutshell: the great machinery of the universe is inscrutable and inexorable. When we get too close to it, we are often threshed. We, threshed, rise up, dust ourselves off, and start reconnecting the fragmented bits of our reality. That's life.)


Does this hifalutin bit of analysis mean I think Spark a Great Book?  Naw. Of course not. When the great cataclysm approaches, and the Powers That Be prepare the rocket-propelled time capsule, filling it with those Works of the Once Great Human Race that will justify our existence to the unknown civilization that finds the floating space library, Spark will not be onboard.  


But this sad truth does nothing to belie to the impulse behind writing. I don't set out to write immortal books. I mean, who does that? I think of a story, and if it intrigues me enough, I write it out. But that process is, all by itself, magical and amazing. It's amazing that we want to do it. It's magical that we can at all.  We are homo scribens, the race that writes, the storytelling species. Locking into that impulse means messing around with Greatness. My goofy little novel came from the same place as Lolita, as The Poisonwood Bible, as Ulysses.  In those quiet, passionate moments, when we're dancing on the third rail of creativity, we catch a lightning glimpse of that immortal face, we hear the non-sensical muttering of the muses.  How can we come away from that experience untouched by Greatness?  


Those muses, those angels have a message, a simple one:  We are here.  


And all of our twisting, writhing, passion-filled, agonized creations are nothing but a reflected bit of that seemingly infinite light. A candle flame's worth. Without even meaning to, without even understanding, we pass on that message. 


They are here. 

GD Deckard
Posted: Saturday, January 17, 2015 4:47 PM
Joined: 7/23/2014
Posts: 159

"dancing on the third rail of creativity"


You do have a great novel in you, Atthys.
Find it.
 I want to read it.

Posted: Saturday, January 17, 2015 5:41 PM
Joined: 8/22/2014
Posts: 9


            When I read books and short stories by authors: John Steinbeck, Guy de Maupassant, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Frank Herbert I found them to be great.  Though, at the time, I did not know these people were already lauded as successful authors because of their great novels.  These were books which I found in the family library or were thrown on my desk in high school to read.  Yes, it is nice to have critics telling us what is a great novel or not, but in the end we have to read it and give our own opinions on the work.  For example, I did not care much for the novel ‘The Catcher In The Rye’.  I found it to be long winded and perversely childish, yet later I discovered this book was considered to be a great novel.

            As for me, like many members in this site, I like to write.  I have a 710 page whopper which I have to review, cut down to size, and re-review until I am happy with it.  Do I wish for or hope for that one day my work will be consider as ‘great’, hell yeah!  Yet, the truth is, I have become a better writer when I get thoughtful critiques.  Therefore, the question is, did these authors become great novelists because of earlier critiques or did they have the magic from the onset?


Cheers to all,




--edited by Erik-R on 1/17/2015, 11:07 PM--

GD Deckard
Posted: Saturday, January 17, 2015 8:28 PM
Joined: 7/23/2014
Posts: 159

Are writers born or made?

"...the question is, did these authors become great novelists because of earlier critiques or did they have the magic from the onset?"


Helluva question, r-Erik. Some authors (like Gore Vidal) seemed to think you have to be a writer, you can't make yourself one. Others (like Norman Mailer} spent a lot of time studying how to write well. I suspect the truth is both, some part of you must be a writer and you have to learn how to express yourself to be any good at it.

Posted: Saturday, January 17, 2015 10:34 PM
Joined: 9/17/2013
Posts: 104

I'm not writing a great novel. I'm writing my first novel. It's a good story, and I hope I do it justice. I have an appreciative audience, people who've said they enjoyed my short stories, and they're waiting for the novel. That's encouraging.


Arthur Krystal is more famous than me, but I don't worry too much about what's published in the Chronicle on Higher Education. I used to get that paper. I know what it is. It's not a newspaper for me. When GD was starting this thread. I was feeding the horses, cleaning the barn, and shoveling a snowdrift away from the garage doors. Arthur Krystal and I live in different worlds.


I don't know if a writer is born or made. I come from a line of storytellers. Stories are in my genes. And I have studied writing slowly as time allowed, and that has improved my writing.


I write because I want to do it, and because there are rewards for me in it. I learn something with every story, and I try to move forward always. My best story is always my next one. Maybe someday I'll take a good story and write it into a pretty good novel. 

Amber Wolfe
Posted: Saturday, January 17, 2015 11:28 PM

Here, here! I agree with Perry. I'm writing my first novel, also. And I like to think it's 'decent'. So far the people on Book Country who've reviewed my story have enjoyed it, and that's my goal. Creating stories that were fun for me to write and fun for others to read. My reward is having others enjoy the stories--Though no one outside of Book Country has read my work, since I'm still unpublished. But I hope one day I will be.


I think the definition of 'great' is vast. I don't think it should be determined by the amount of sales or the critiques of a few. Some books I've found wonderful while others turned their noses down at them. Some books are best sellers that I don't think should be. But I suppose that so long as whoever read the piece enjoyed it, then that should be enough.

Lucy Silag - Book Country Community Manager
Posted: Tuesday, January 20, 2015 10:48 AM
Joined: 6/7/2013
Posts: 1356

Love this thread . . . totally feels like we are in our writers' cafe! (Which in my head, looks just like Central Perk on Friends.)


I read something on the author Elizabeth Gilbert's Facebook wall over the weekend:


"Be brave. Without bravery, you will never know the world as richly as it longs to be known. Without bravery, your life will remain small--far smaller than you probably wanted your life to be."


I always balk at the idea of being a "great" writer, just because that feels like a lot of pressure. I don't know about the rest of you guys, but feeling pressured is not how I get to my best work. So I think it's okay to strive for bravery rather than greatness. Bravery means sitting down and doing it even when you are lacking in confidence. Bravery means trying things that aren't quite right, but trying them for the sake of see what happens. Bravery means sharing your work and being open to feedback. Bravery means revising and trying again.

Mimi Speike
Posted: Tuesday, January 20, 2015 6:09 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1016

I think that writing to a goal, you want to write something important, you want to write what you understand is a marketable formula, or a popular genre, I don't believe in any of that. I say, tell your story, period. The years will decide if your thing is great. Many popular works have turned into greats, the quality of the writing is so damn good they continue to be read. Just tell your story the best you can.


Someone asked Bogart if he knew he was making a classic when he made Casablanca. He said something like, We were only trying to make as good a movie as we could. That's the only way to go at it.


I think we have a certain direction in us. I could start out to write a popular piece, chick lit or whatever, and it wouldn't stay chick lit long. I always want to dig deeper, and that's not chick lit. It's the same thing when I swipe a nice phrase from a classic. I start improving it and before long, you wouldn't know where it came from.


--edited by Mimi Speike on 1/20/2015, 7:11 PM--

Janet Umenta, Book Country Assistant
Posted: Thursday, January 22, 2015 11:05 AM
Joined: 4/7/2014
Posts: 141

Interesting perspective from Mark Twain:

"My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Everybody drinks water." 

GD Deckard
Posted: Thursday, January 22, 2015 11:17 AM
Joined: 7/23/2014
Posts: 159

LOL Janet -gotta Love Mark Twain!
Tom Wolosz
Posted: Thursday, January 22, 2015 2:19 PM
Joined: 5/25/2011
Posts: 121

Hello All,

    Been a while.  GD alerted me to this thread, so I guess he'd like me to add my 2₵.

     First off GD, I used to subscribe to the Chronicle - it's kind of the must read paper for all academic administrators and wannabe's.  I dropped my subscription pretty fast.  I've spent most of my adult life working around other Ph.D's, so I don't take these bolts of wisdom from on-high very seriously.  If I remember correctly PhD is actually an ancient Sumerian word for "incredibly massive ego."

     I don't think anyone sets out to write a "great" book (unless, of course, they suffer from delusions of grandeur).    There are writers who just want to make some cash, or maybe just love characters or storylines to the point where they must add their own vision (fan fiction, etc.) - hence the formulaic stuff that crowds bookshelves.   There are also those who just want to tell a good story, or are driven to tell a story they feel important.  Since the writer is in essence speaking to an audience, it is the audience that determines if a book is "great" by passing it down from one generation to the next.  Books that reveal something important about the human condition, or give a true sense of the times of the writer may make the list.  So a book may be wildly popular for a time because it catches a mood or follows a trend, only to be quickly forgotten as the crowd moves on.

     So, did I set out to write a "great" book when I started writing "Agony of the Gods"?  No, I just wanted to set characters in situations I felt were morally interesting - to examine how people might behave under certain conditions.  I'm reasonably happy with the book, and it's been published which, of course, makes me happy.  Is it a "great" book? Doubtful.  I'll settle for reasonably worth reading, but that's not for me to decide.

    Oh well, enough rambling for now.  Maybe I'll expand this into a blog post for my Webpage.  I've been told I need to put something on it.

    And thanks, GD.  This is a really interesting thread.


Allen Curtis Meissner
Posted: Thursday, January 22, 2015 6:25 PM
Joined: 9/2/2014
Posts: 22

When I first wrote The Terasrael Chronicles , I drew from increasingly extensive amounts of knowledge and numbers of experiences . For a time , all I had was a pen , lined paper , and a computer that before now had a virus . To me that is what makes a novel great . When one can use the resources they have on hand , then make the most of the resources they discover in the midst of their struggles .
GD Deckard
Posted: Thursday, January 22, 2015 8:31 PM
Joined: 7/23/2014
Posts: 159

Hi Tom,


Good to see you here. I wish you all the best with "Agony of the Gods"!

Mimi Speike
Posted: Thursday, January 22, 2015 9:12 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1016

After working on Sly! for thirty years - a fact that I am embarrassed to admit - I sometimes lie and say twenty - I can tell you all that you don't decide what the story is going to consist of. It tells you, and you the take hold of the coattails and hope you can hang on. And hope you don't lose heart. To write intending to build a career, a good many people seem to have that idea, that is pretty insane. Good luck to all who dream that dream. My dream is to finish my story before I die. Period.


When I say my story, I mean the three books I have half or better written, and a fourth with substantial material jotted, and a very short (verse) children's companion book about three quarters done also.


Want a laugh? Sly started thirty years ago as a short story. My idea was to write a prose explanation of Hey Diddle Diddle.The cat lost his fiddle in short order, although I think by the time he gets to England he's going to be adept on the mandolin. The moon became Muldoon, my first assassin. The dish became Cavendish, a co-assassin, and my stand-in for Robert Dudley. But anyone who knows the period would have realized immediately that I was writing about Dudley, and wondering, why the hell doesn't she call him by his proper name? I worried about that for a year or two and finally gave in.


The spoon was the murder weapon, dipped in a clear poison that hardened to a gloss, and was to stir a cup of steaming chocolate in which the poison would melt. Any strange taste would be hidden by the chocolate, a novelty at the time, I figured many did not know what it was supposed to taste like. I was working on the theory that like many of our beloved nursery rhymes, there had originally been a real story attached to it.


The little dog, he was going to be the Earl of Essex, who was referred to as Elizabeth's little lap dog.


--edited by Mimi Speike on 1/22/2015, 10:54 PM--

Amanda Kimberley
Posted: Thursday, January 22, 2015 9:17 PM
Joined: 11/30/2011
Posts: 69

Whenever someone asks me about the greats in writing I always think about Emily Dickinson. I know she's a poet and many, many English teachers don't like her, but she was probably my first inspiration when I started to write at a young age.


From what I've read, Emily never thought her writing was good, and was told this by a man who happened to be her neighbor. Upon Emily's death, that neighbor got a right to Emily's poems and published them. And now, it's all history. We have a bunch of poems from a clearly brilliant woman that were published by someone else.


So now I ask all of you, if you feel your writing is good enough to put to a page, what makes you think it isn't good enough for the world to see from you? Did someone knock you down? Or are you doubting yourself? Either way, I encourage you to have the strength that Emily clearly did not. Why?


Because, and to quote her, "Every word is dead, some say, but I say it just begins to live that day."

GD Deckard
Posted: Friday, January 23, 2015 8:42 AM
Joined: 7/23/2014
Posts: 159


I love Emily Dickinson's sonnets. They are the very definition of the form.

And thanks for the bit of history. I did not know that. Interesting, that someone so creative would also be so easily directed by others.

Amanda Kimberley
Posted: Friday, January 23, 2015 9:09 AM
Joined: 11/30/2011
Posts: 69

GD, I bet if we could talk to some of these greats like Dickinson, Yeats, Keats, Coleridge, and Byron-- to name a few-- we'd find that they all didn't think they were great. Many of them struggled with words just like us.


For instance, "Kubla Khan" was a poem written from a drug induced state and it was never finished because he forgot the lines he intended to write. Coleridge may have never published it if Byron didn't encourage him.

GD Deckard
Posted: Friday, January 23, 2015 9:28 AM
Joined: 7/23/2014
Posts: 159


Yeh, I know real greatness is more the judgment of history than of peers. But I have to wonder, did what drove them to write give the great poets suspicion that they had greatness in them? Was what they sought to express as important to them as other truths in their life?


In your own readings, have you come across any marker, any one thing that stands out in the lives of all great poets?

Rob Emery
Posted: Friday, January 23, 2015 1:51 PM
Joined: 3/4/2014
Posts: 18



Greatness! greatness is the prose that strums the heartstrings of the reader. Be they many or be they few.


Rob Emery

Lisa Li
Posted: Friday, January 23, 2015 3:02 PM
Joined: 12/8/2013
Posts: 10

Ah, but where do you start with this question? I like all of the posts I've read on this so far.


 First, "great" is such a subjective term it would be nigh impossible to identify one novel as great. Thousands of titles fall into that category given the preference of the individual reader. Why was "War and Peace" considered "great?" It's absurd length? The movie? I don't know. I enjoyed the read, but my idea of what is "great" is different from my husband's, or my friends'. There has been a dilution of "proper" language - "literary" language - in writing to be sure. Instead colloquialisms, rampant use of adjectives ending in "-ly", PLURALS ENDING IN APOSTROPHE "S" (my big peeve if you couldn't tell), and other linguistic faux pas in literary fiction are the norm.


 I don't think that any writer or author sets out to write a "great" novel - except that to that individual, it may be great. I like the hell out of my stories - but outside readers whom I've never met blast away at various elements I deem critical to the story. That's the art of taking criticism and learning from it. I enjoy writing, the telling of a story. If people consider it, "great" I take that as a supreme compliment. I would never say my novels are "great" in the alternate context, however. And I hated "Waiting for Godot" - I almost fell alseep during the film, too. I agree with some of Mr. Krystal's premises, but not all of it.


To avoid confusion - I read books always always FIRST. Then I may MAY watch the movie to see if it's true to the literature. I am a movie buff, too.

--edited by Lisa Li on 1/23/2015, 3:08 PM--

Carl E. Reed
Posted: Friday, January 23, 2015 9:19 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Rick Gekoski (writer, former teacher of English Literature at the U. of Warwick, Man Booker Prize judge) joins the conversation:



excerpt (emphasis' mine) from: 



So, if you want to define a great book, what do you point to? When we were reading for the Man Booker International prize, the judges agreed that we were looking (among other things) for authors who had produced a "masterpiece", though the term rightly made us a little uncomfortable.


What is a masterpiece? Crime and PunishmentHamletTo His Coy Mistress.UlyssesMadame Bovary. How does one know this? By having read a hell of a lot. Something only stands out from a crowd when there is a crowd to stand out from. This is one of many reasons to read as widely as you can: not only is it more fun and more edifying, it helps you to make distinctions between the quality, and the qualities, of one thing when you set it against another. One element of our experience of reading is inescapably comparative.


Once you have agreed examples of masterpieces, you do notice that they have some qualities in common, though not necessarily any given one. So, if you must: what do many masterpieces have in common? Let me use some shorthand here, both for purposes of concision and because I am not comfortable with these sorts of airy generalisations. 


Nevertheless, what you find in the greatest works of literature often involves some or all of the following: the high quality of the language, complexity of theme and detail, universality, depth and quality of feeling, memorableness, rereadability … When you read works of this quality you often feel, and continue to feel, that your internal planes have shifted, and that things will never, quite, be the same again.


We could go on to widen these so-called criteria, and to elucidate them individually, but the process is dangerous, because the next thing you know you will have a set of categories that you lump uneasily together into a definition. And then you begin to apply it. And it will never work, not properly.


Of course some things are better than others. Some books are better than others. Martyn Goff was quite confident that, though it is impossible to get five judges of a prize to agree on what is the "best" book, they can certainly agree that a great many are not even in the running. And once you get down to the chosen few, that's when the real discrimination begins.


There is something old-fashioned about all of this, and it begins to rub uneasily against the spirit of the times. These reflections about prizes are in the long run of no great importance. I think, though, that they have large implications for the way we think about education. And that does matter. These days "everyone is entitled to their own opinion", and teachers are often reticent about correcting their students' beliefs, telling them when they are shallow, inadequate in thought, or argument. This is partly, I think, the residue of naive multiculturalism and doctrinaire post-structuralism, but it has been fostered cancerously by the culture of the internet, and enhanced by a new generation addicted to texting and social networking.


"Everyone is entitled to their own opinion." Look at the intemperate responses to columns and blogs in newspapers and online, the fatuous rubbish that passes for "connectedness" on Facebook, read your student's texts. Hell, read you own. There are a staggering amount of opinions out there, and a vast number of them are insipid, self-indulgent, frivolous: wrong. And it is surely somebody's job – certainly, but not exclusively, those of us who teach or have taught – to continue to say this, to insist on it, and to lead our students, gently but firmly, into opinions which are not merely personal, and which can be justified. Encouraging people to think, and to stand up for what they believe, is terrific. So is discouraging them from standing up too soon, or too noisily. (Heh!--Carl)


I cannot give you rules for how to do this, or criteria, or objective guidelines, and even if I could, I wouldn't. I know how much harm that can do.


--edited by Carl E. Reed on 1/23/2015, 9:20 PM--

gloria piper
Posted: Friday, January 23, 2015 9:49 PM
Joined: 3/3/2014
Posts: 7

It's nice to have written a great novel, but I doubt it can be one's aim. One's aim must be to be true to self, to be original and imaginative, to say something important, to give a new perspective to which the reader can relate, and to haunt the reader's thoughts for years afterward.
Allen Curtis Meissner
Posted: Friday, January 23, 2015 10:48 PM
Joined: 9/2/2014
Posts: 22

I am inclined to believe that what truly makes a novel great is when it is talked about and read by many generations . Another way to put is would be from Mark Twain " A classic is what everyone wants to have read to them but nobody wants to read themselves ! "
Charles J. Barone
Posted: Saturday, January 24, 2015 1:53 AM
Joined: 7/18/2014
Posts: 121

Allen Curtis Meissner wrote:
I am inclined to believe that what truly makes a novel great is when it is talked about and read by many generations . Another way to put is would be from Mark Twain " A classic is what everyone wants to have read to them but nobody wants to read themselves ! "



Speaking of Mark Twain and the classics. “I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”



--edited by Charles J. Barone on 1/24/2015, 1:54 AM--

Posted: Sunday, January 25, 2015 5:00 PM
Joined: 3/12/2014
Posts: 1

Thank you for this, Lucy-- bravery is a great need among us as writers, at least at first before confidence has developed. You inspired me to (bravely) post the first chapter of a new novel for feedback. We appreciate all you do--



Lucy Silag - Book Country Community Manager
Posted: Monday, January 26, 2015 3:21 PM
Joined: 6/7/2013
Posts: 1356

Aw, Mark--thank you! I appreciate your kind words.


@Lisa--loved your post . . . but misuse of apostrophes in literary fiction?!?! Can this be so? Published literary fiction or works-in-progress??

Posted: Thursday, March 5, 2015 12:31 PM
Joined: 2/14/2015
Posts: 16

Dude.....all my novels are GREAT! But if you mean Pulitzer Prize-worthy by that standard, I guess not. I have over 20 novels out and struggle every single day with my "identity" as "author" since even with those numbers I don't support myself (that's a matter of exposure on the one hand and connections on the other).

However, I think any one of us/you who has more than a few thousand words strung together by now should consider themselves "Great" by the standard of all the folks out there who keep say "You know, I should write a book."

Yes. You should. That would be great.

Thanks for making me ponder this GD. 

GD Deckard
Posted: Thursday, March 5, 2015 12:42 PM
Joined: 7/23/2014
Posts: 159

Hi LizCrowe,

We hear you! Go to the discussion topic, "Writers Co-op" at

and see if you might like the idea of joining a small group of writers in a cooperative effort to market our books.


We're thinking of forming a Writers Co-op. Currently, we have good comments and 6 writers who have said they would join, some good ideas and the domain name,


I'd like to start actual planning next week. Care to join us?


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