Hubris, Writers, and Great Writing

I awoke early, thinking of hubris and of writers. And then, of that quality of writing which generation after generation calls great writing. It was too early to think. So, I looked this stuff up. Hubris, of course, is a personal quality of exaggerated pride or self-confidence.

Great writing, though, is difficult to Google. Typing the letters “great writing defi” into the search bar caused Google to suggests that I change my inquiry to “good writing definition.” Continuing on to “great writing defin,” I received the prompt, “great technical writing definition.” Meaning, Google knew my question but had no answer. I persisted with “great writing definition” and was rewarded with page after page of results for the definitions, qualities, characteristics, and essentials of -you guessed it- “good writing.” WTF?
Google assured me there are “about 820,000,000 results” for my inquiry, no combination of which even pretended to answer my question. So much for Google University. Time to seek the answer elsewhere.

Here is good. Writers ought to be able to define great writing.

But first, to hubris. We see it every day on TV and social media, people with little or narrow understanding telling all of the world what to think, feel, say and, for us writers, what and how to write. And that’s just the sincere people, the ones who know their lives would be better if we all just worked harder to make their lives better. Hubris, an exaggerated sense of self-importance.

The opposite of Hubris is Sophrosyne (σωφροσύνη). Meaning, “an ideal of excellence of character and soundness of mind.” I didn’t even try to Google that concept.

Writers, of course, deal with the world as it is by writing fiction. Whether our writing is great, or even good, is determined by what readers think of it. Writing may be the only profession where greatness is determined by people who know only what they want from make believe worlds.

Which brings us back to great writing: How, do you think, can we write such that generations of readers will want to pass on what we have written?


35 thoughts on “Hubris, Writers, and Great Writing

  1. “The opposite of Hubris is Sophrosyne (σωφροσύνη). Meaning, ‘an ideal of excellence of character and soundness of mind.'”
    Seems to me that the opposite of hubris would be insecurity or self-denigration. Sophrosyne (which I’ve never encountered before) would be the middle of the spectrum between these two.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. mimispeike says:

    Great writing, to me, is writing I wish I had done. That covers a lot of territory but at its core, to me, means style, phrasing, flow. I therefore enjoy and admire a wide range of authors and subjects and approaches.

    Liked by 6 people

  3. Any discussion of “excellence” always brings Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig to mind. A dangerous hole to fall into. However, I’ll offer this: I think of fiction writing as “excellent” when it submerges me in the depth of its story, carries me along on twisting currents of plot and emotion, and touches my humanity without preaching or lecturing or ornate language. The only contemporary example that comes to mind is Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. There may be other examples out there, but I haven’t read them. If you have, please share your recommendations!

    Liked by 7 people

  4. Great writing for me is writing I keep coming back to. What stories have I reread the most? Books by Ursula Leguin–both fantasy and science fiction. Great characterization, settings, story line, tone. She writes with a softness the way your grandmother would tell you a story. She has strong female characters. Her antagonists are sympathetic. And she does dragons as well as anybody!
    Her Earthsea double trilogy she wrote over a span of half a century, yet it all hangs together–books 1 through 6. And I’ve delved into them numerous times.

    Liked by 7 people

  5. To come back to your last question: “How can we write such that generations of readers will want to pass on what we have written?” I don’t even want to try. I don’t want to think about doing this. I’m sure it would destroy my writing. I’d start getting too portentous and significant and preachy. Every sentence must be a gem! I’d agonize over every synonym. I’d probably never get anything done.
    I’m just going to keep writing for the fun of it.
    I just went back and reread some of my Amazon reviews, and it got me all excited again. At least right now, some people like my writing. Let posterity take care of itself.

    Liked by 7 people

  6. Well, first off, I don’t think we use sophrosyne as compared to hubris for the same reason many people have read Dante’s Inferno but few have read the Paradiso. We are attracted to the loud, the obnoxious and the arrogant while we smile and passingly think, “How nice,” if we meet or hear of a person of sound mind and ideal character. Pass a horrible vehicle accident and we stop and rubberneck, but we never take notice of someone driving well. We are always attracted, albeit with distain, by what is wrong, but take what is right with an air of “oh, that’s just as it should be.”
    Great writing? I don’t think it comes from the use of elegant phraseology, or deeply literary style. It comes from a story (well written, of course) that touches the heart, conveys some aspect of what it is to be human in action, or desire. I don’t think you can set out to write a great work. No, you just set out to write a story. If what you end up with can still be read twenty-five, or fifty, or a hundred years from now and evoke in the reader an understanding, an empathy with your characters and what they experience – if it speaks to them across time, then you’ve written a great story.
    Maybe a way to tell is if you can sum a story up with one or two words which have deep meaning for the human condition – Shelly’s Frankenstein (hubris); Shakespeare’s Hamlet (self-destructive revenge); Hugo’s Les Miserables (redemption).

    Liked by 7 people

      • Carl
        I would love to have known Norman Mailer. He gave me my first insight into the concept of “show don’t tell” when he criticized another writer: “He said she was beautiful because he could not make her so.”

        Liked by 3 people

    • Yes, Tom, I think your distinction between writing and story is useful, and while we may enjoy well-turned sentences as we read, what we remember afterwards is the story – the emotions and the characters. I would cite Dostoevsky as someone who wrote great stories but paid little attention to sentence structure (this is remarked upon by his translators). And I think it’s easier, though requires a lot of work, to write elegant prose than a great story.

      Liked by 6 people

      • For the most part, I agree about remembering “the story – the emotions and the characters” rather than “well-turned sentences”. There are exceptions, most notable to me being anything by Douglas Adams. Not only do his stories stick with me, but his turns of phrase and enviably-honed adverbs have staying power and come up in thought and conversation far more often than other authors’ stories. That is not to say Adams works are “great” literature, but they may be at the top of a small class.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, Doc. I don’t think we use “sophrosyne” at all, especially when moderation, discretion, or prudence are handy. But because I can’t quite find sense when using any of them “as compared to hubris”, I suspect you’ve found a definition for the word somewhere other than where I looked, lol.

      Anyway, I agree most of us take notice of the negative because it’s easier to see. But rather than seeing the positive and commenting to ourselves “that’s just as it should be,” I think most people don’t even notice it. I believe we will make note of the well-driven car and persons “of sound mind and ideal character” if we actively pay attention to the world around us.

      It could be most people find that too exhausting a way to live. (Consider how exhausting the last few years have been as we’ve been compelled to notice such constant negativity.) But on balance, what effect does the weight of noticing only negativity have on society’s health?

      Maybe our lives would be less stressful and more energetic if we compelled our attention toward those things that make us think, “How nice.” Or, “oh, that’s just as it should be.” Yet I would never advocate ignoring the negative completely — it does foster the best stories.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Great topic, GD!

    Quoting from my essay (posted on the site in the archives; many–though not all–literary examples drawn from John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction), I wrestle with this question of escapist (which many denigrate as trash) vs. interpretive (which many view as “great”) literature:

    “Escape and interpretation are not two great bins, into one or the other of which we can toss any given story. Rather, they are opposite ends of a scale—the two poles between which the world of fiction spins.”

    The problem with this definition of escapist vs. interpretive literature is that it encourages the reader to denigrate and undervalue works with a higher fantasy-to-reality quotient than those books currently shelved under the headings of “literature” or “general fiction” in the bookstores. By this criterion, a novel that concerned itself with, say, the plight of black slaves in the antebellum American South would automatically be accorded a higher literary status than a book chronicling the experiences of an earthling raised on Mars come back to his home planet to become a martyred messiah. The personal conflicts and drama occasioned by a suburban American housewife attempting to bed every married man in her neighborhood would be judged a more “interpretive” work than the adventures of an Icelandic-legends-inspired group of halflings, elves, dwarves and wizards. Using this standard, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (that wooden work of stilted dialogue, crude stereotypes and breathless melodrama) must be accorded higher literary status than Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land (the underground science fiction classic that addressed themes of free love, the empty authoritarianism of organized religion and the unthinking cruelties perpetuated by willfully stupid, xenophobic people upon the nonconformist and the iconoclast). The twenty-four Newsday writers who collaborated in the making of the satirical hoax Naked Came the Stranger would be hailed as better writers than J. R. R. Tolkien. Is this really a workable standard? Is Perrine’s escapist-vs.-interpretive dichotomy a useful criterion by which we may judge the excellence, relevance and general importance of different types of literature?

    I argue: most emphatically not. In place of Perrine’s principle I propose that we should—nay, must—discuss literature in terms of its arete (a Greek term signifying excellence). Normally translated “virtue”, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy informs us:

    “. . . arete refers to a quality the possession of which either constitutes the possessor as, or causes it to be, a good instance of its kind. Thus sharpness is an arete of a knife, strength an arete of a boxer, etc. Since in order to be a good instance of its kind an object normally has to possess several excellences, the term may designate each of those excellences severally or the possession of them all together—overall or total excellence.”

    Surely this makes more sense? In fact, isn’t that the very way we contextualize and judge literature, highbrow and low, when we communicate our opinions to one another? Who but a pedantic fool would judge a suspense thriller by the same criterions as literary fiction? Shall we pit a Robert E. Howard swords-&-sorcery fantasy novel against Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and argue over which book is the more “interpretive”?

    Liked by 6 people

    • “Escapist (which many denigrate as trash) vs. interpretive (which many view as “great”) literature” – mostly, I think, the media, because as you say, readers pay less attention to that false dichotomy than critics, academics and other representatives of the literary establishment.

      Liked by 5 people

      • Mike:
        “I have found profound life lessons in lowbrow literature.”
        I know you did not mean Steinbeck is lowbrow, but his stories come to mind because he wrote about the extraordinary sides of ordinary people. Perhaps stories that stay with us do so because they are true for so many.

        Liked by 2 people

  8. Rudy says:

    Great article! Personally, I believe the recognization of great writing belongs to readers. It’s their part in the inexperience of written storytelling. It’s the job the reader to ensure they express their vision of their story through the best means possible.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Rudy
      Excellent point. Stories are two-way or not at all and the meaning is a collaboration between the writer and the reader. Poets know this. Ask one what their poem means and they are likely to respond, “What does it mean to you?”

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Definitions are tricky; examples are illustrative, revealing, and easy to grasp.

    I wonder if anyone is interested in sharing the titles of some “great” literature that left them a different person post-read? Here’s a half-dozen of mine (in no particular order; many of them re-read multiple times):

    The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

    Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said – Philip K. Dick

    The Collected Short Stories of Alice B. Sheldon (pen name: James Tiptree Jr.)

    The Collected WWI Poets (see especially Siegfried Sassoon & Wilfred Owen)

    The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Darkness – Carl Sagan

    Man’s Search For Meaning – Viktor Frankl

    PS. I can’t wait to learn what great works of literature most deeply affected the writers posting here. . . .

    Liked by 5 people

    • I guess I’ve been most impressed by stories– usually (but not always) genre, but subversive – that made me think. When I say that, it might not be because of the entire story, but just a comment that struck me.


      The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth – U.S. Senators no longer representing states, but corporations; additives in cereal to addict the consumer, etc. All ideas of corporations run wild that stem from things like the subliminal messages (which were, luckily, banned) implanted in early movies to get you to buy things.

      Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – an early meditation on the joys of genetic engineering.

      Colossus by D. F. Jones – a supercomputer achieves AI and takes over the world. Lots of standard plotting, but an ending that knocks you off your feet by posing a simple (unanswered) question. Would we trade our liberty for a world free of hunger, disease, etc? (Also a great example of the danger of writing sequels – the second and third book of the series sucked. Also, the movie screwed up the ending – totally missing the point.)

      On the non-fiction side:

      The Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust – the effects of a major cataclysmic event (The Civil War) on the society that lived through it.
      Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham – when ideology and politics result in decisions that ignore fact.

      Any of the “Voices” books regarding World War II by Svetlana Alexievich.

      Liked by 3 people

    • I wouldn’t call them all “great” literature, but each of them changed me in a permanent way.

      At age 8: Rusty’s Spaceship by Evelyn Sibley Lampman and The Gammage Cup by Carol Kendall and EriK Blegvad.

      Green Mansions by William Henry Hudson

      Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

      What Mad Universe by Fredric Brown

      Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

      LotR by J.R.R. Tolkien

      Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

      The Dispossessed, and Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin

      The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

      Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

      And, yes, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, et al, by Douglas Adams

      Liked by 2 people

  10. Google also cops out of distinguishing “great” music from merely “good” music.  I sympathize.  Trying to say just what makes a composition (or a performance) good is already a tough job.  Saying what would make it great is tougher still, especially if one is reluctant to just pass the buck to posterity.

    Consider Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), whose music passes DocTom’s test with flying colors.  Yes, the persistent appeal of her work is a strong indication of greatness.  Other medieval composers did perceive and remark on her greatness, presumably w/o visiting what was then the far future.  Were their opinions were just lucky guesses?

    Liked by 7 people

  11. victoracquista says:

    [Hit the wrong button and continue comment…]
    I think you can consider great writing from the objective and technical elements and from the subjective viewpoint. I think most great writing has some basic requirement to be technically sound. Like any work of art, great seems to be primarily a subjective matter. For me personally, I enjoy well developed characters that are relatable to some aspect of the human condition. An emotional bond develops between me as a reader and the character. Plot needs to be interesting as well. I also enjoy having social themes embedded into story and characters. But these are just personal preferences. By these personal metrics, Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” is a great novel. De gustibus non est disputandum.

    Liked by 6 people

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