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What is good writing, exactly?

October 30, 2009 |  1:18 pm
 Something strange is happening in England: the National Academy of Writing has launched the first Good Writing Awards. Aren't all the existing literary awards -- the Man Booker and the Pulitzer, the Nobel and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the National Book Awards and the Printz as well as countless others -- already awarding good writing?

Maybe so, but the Good Writing Awards are distinguished in two ways. First, the National Academy of Writing is soliciting nominations from the public on its website -- its members "want to hear the British people expressing their opinions," rather than asking a group of professionals to make the decisions (although professionals will be on the judging panel).  The other distinguishing characteristic is that it's not asking for whole books --  only for 100 to 1,000-word excerpts. For those of you who don't count words for a living, that's anywhere from a paragraph to about four pages. "The upper limit has been set," the website proclaims, "because good writing ought to be able to demonstrate its quality in less than 1,000 words."

In two categories -- instruction manuals and business/government writing -- this strategy will certainly generate interesting results.

But setting those aside, it seems to be an upside-down way of casting attention on close reading in longer works. Four pages of a play, nonfiction book or novel -- the other three categories in this competition -- could be much better than the work as a whole. Even a short story could begin with a brilliant paragraph and then devolve into a mass of cardboard characters in a plotless mess.

Isn't one of the things that makes a piece of writing resonate how it fits into the larger piece? Cordelia's arguments with her father might come off as whiny if you didn't realize what was happening in "King Lear." Doesn't "...and yes I said yes I will Yes" carry such resonance because it comes after more than 700 pages of "Ulysses," instead of somewhere in the middle?

Can the texture of writing be isolated from a work as a whole?

-- Carolyn Kellogg