In Praise of Fine Writing

When most modern writers come in for our praise, it is because of their little tricks or little twists. When Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, Eliot or Checkhov are recalled, it is as if tidal waves are washing over us. We cannot catch our breath. If I have taught you only to write so that your contemporaries may say nice things to you, I have failed you. I should have been teaching you that the one goal you must aim for is the stunned, silent gratitude of history

— Roger Rosenblatt

This quote comes at the end of Rosenblatt’s otherwise excellent Unless It Moves the Human Heart. Like the writing he favors, Rosenblatt’s advice is brief, direct, and unpretentious. The characters he conjures are amiable and their conversation–the substance of the book–is insightful without feeling contrived. One almost forgets one is reading A Book About Writing. Until this quote. Yes, yes–writers today will be forgotten tomorrow. But to suppose that the stature of a Homer or a Milton is the one goal to which writers should aspire is silly. The world needs fine writers, writers who can craft a sentence without embarrassing themselves or the English language. To ask for all writers to aspire to greatness is to ask them not to examine their abilities honestly or to ask most to excuse themselves from the endeavor. There is–it is true–a certain motive force to grand aspirations but it is also true that grand disappointments tend to arrest motion. It would be a pity if, judging themselves unequal to writing worthy of “the silent gratitude of history,” fine writers were to fall silent.