By Chester Campbell
My colleague Earl Staggs stirred quite a discussion last week with a piece about great writing and great writers. There seemed to be a rather general consensus that some people have an innate talent for writing while others don't. Any English teacher would probably agree. The question remained, who decides on the subject of greatness?
"Although Lanier had great ethical earnestness and fervor, he was not a guiding influence in his own time. Fired with the romantic spirit, he came late, in a post-war, unromantic age. He achieved a distinctive manner; but his technique was too refined, his verse somehow lacked vitality, and the more virile Whitman, not Lanier, was to sway and inspire a generation. Yet an unusual interest attaches to him. His letters reveal a pleasing personality and his last years testify to his ambition and fortitude. A recent biographer describes him as fastidious, dreamlike, and high-minded, and makes much of his manliness, his charm, his antagonism to all that he thought despicable, and his courage in the face of poverty."
The Preface to the book contains this statement as part of the authors' explanation of their purpose: "An attempt has been made to present the individual and distinctive literary theories and aims of authors as a basis for interpreting and judging their work."
Which leads me to the conclusion that, at least in the realm of "literature," it's the critics in later generations who decide upon the greatness of writers. In reading some of the comments, it intrigued me how people interpret what writers "really meant," i.e. what they were thinking when they wrote a particular passage or book. I've had the experience of readers reading something into a novel that I had no idea of saying.
It leads me back to the conclusion that each reader comes away with his or her own interpretation of what they read, which, in turn, reflects on how they view the writer. As we learn with agents and editors and publishers, judging a manuscript or a book is a very subjective exercise. It's what causes authors to develop thick skins to survive.