I’ve read the works of great writers like Homer, Cormac McCarthy, Hemingway, Murakami, Faulker, O’Connor, Joyce and many others, including Nabakov himself, and have wondered what exactly is it that gives me this feeling or the understanding that these words were written by a great writer.
Was it the voice or narration used by the author, or how a setting was described in such detailed that you might imagine it to be a part of your own memory, or a conversation so truthfully written that you pick up on the subtle information that wasn’t said, or how the main character was unpacked, slowly revealing his flaws and desires as he attempts to overcome himself, or how the moral lessons were beautifully etched throughout the story.
Perhaps it’s the confrontation of difficult topics like pedophilia as Nabakov did in his famed novel Lolita or that massacre of innocent people in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and yet, the word beautiful can be used to describe both novels. That must be the mark of a great writer.
In order to truly understand what makes a great writer, it is a good idea to ask a great writer. Nabakov, in the book, Lectures on Literature, gives three aspects, which combined, results in a major writer.
There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines this three-storyteller, teacher, enchanter-but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.
The storyteller is the entertainer. He tells a story for simple excitement, emotional participation and to travel to a unique region.
A slightly different though not necessarily higher mind looks for the teacher in the writer.
As the name suggests, a teacher is someone who gives you knowledge through writing. This can be deep moral education or knowledge about simple facts.
The enchanter is a level above both the storyteller and the teacher.
Finally, and above all, a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.
As I look back and remember the great pieces of fiction and non-fiction I have read, I can see the three elements at work. Even the simplest plotted stories or stories that seem to have no plot are entertaining and I find myself connecting to the story at an emotional level. Each story has a lesson or knowledge that can be derived from it. Above all, the works I find to be great have the features of enchantment which have left me with an itch to study the writing, to see how the particular style was integrated or how an image was constructed or how the story was interwoven.
As Nabakov put it, it is in the spine that you feel the great writers touch.
The three facets of the great writer-magic, story, lesson-are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought. There are masterpieces of dry, limpid, organized thought which provoke in us an artistic quiver quite as strongly as a novel like Mansfield Park does or as any rich flow of Dickensian sensual imagery. It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to bask in that magic, a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual, we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards an~ watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.