The difference between good writing and great writing.

It’s possible that this knucklehead was the first one to come up with the saying, but I don’t believe it. More likely he was just the first and famousest person to write it down.

In a recent email to a friend of mine, I used some variation of the old proverb, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” And I was kind of surprised to find that my friend thought this was an aaaamazing saying! She emailed back to tell me how much she loved it! And then she posted about it on her Facebook wall!

I was like, “Hmm…I mean, it is a pretty great saying, I suppose…wait…what…does she think that I came up with that myself?”

It was only after talking to her later that evening that she was like, “My god, Rahul. You are so clever. That thing that you made up will percolate through the ages.”

Of course this is kind of a humorous story, but I think it illustrates something important. I’ve said and written a lot of witty things, but no words that I have ever produced in my whole life has caused the same kind of instantaneous reaction in another person that this hoary old proverb caused in my friend. She was driven to not only reply to me, but also to go on Facebook and share it with other people.

That’s the power of great writing. I mean, there’s definitely a social aspect to success. If I didn’t have any friends, then nothing I could say would ever achieve any traction. If I didn’t have the confidence to deploy my writing at the right time and place, then no one would ever see anything I wrote. But none of that matters if the content–the writing itself–doesn’t have that power to shock people and affect them in a way that ordinary words don’t.

I think that’s something I often lose sight of in ordinary life, just because I spend so much time: a) criticizing the flaws in great art; and b) being praised for the goodness of my good art. And those are fine things. It’s worthwhile to learn from Dickens’ flaws. And the enjoyment that people get from my stories is real, honest enjoyment. But still, there is something in Dickens that compels me to talk about him all the time. And that thing is, for most people, missing from my own writing.

I’m totally sure that if I actually had created a phrase that was good as “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” then that shit would right now be going viral and getting retweeted and shared all across the internet. Brilliant stuff has its own power. We just don’t recognize that because we are constantly saturated with brilliant stuff.

Although, sometimes brilliant stuff has so much power that it inspires people to create knock-offs that possess some fraction of the potency of the original. And these knock-offs use their borrowed energy to achieve a weak popularity. And then they flood the internet, and  although the knock-offs never quite achieve the success of the original, they still manage to get enough hits and views and sales and mentions that we all lose our faith in brilliant stuff and start thinking and saying that any old crap can become successful.

Comments (



  1. Gabe

    There’s nothing duller than a carefully decent story, sometimes. It’s my hesitance picking up anthologies: sometimes there’s one or two memorable things, and if I’m lucky 3-4 thought-provokingly bad ones that make me angry enough to complain about them to my roommate for a few minutes, but by and large a lot of stuff on the short story market is just… solid. It’s not bad. It’s unique enough to get published. It’s solid. God protect us from the solid. I can’t think of anything worse than reading a solid novel (and I’ve read a couple recently); you don’t even get the masochistic high of hate-reading. Solid is what happens when people spend too much time socializing with other writers, I think.

    So yeah, I agree with you on Dickens. I kind of think this is the problem also with CBS’s Elementary so far, from cursory inspection; as a show and American Holmes adaptation, House was terrible, repetitive, nonsensical, and pretty offensive. It was also loud and bombastic and did all this at the top of its lungs. I hate House and I still think I’d rather watch a rerun t than the second ep of Elementary. One of these things has already etched itself into the cultural canon for a reason — it’s bad, reactionary, smug, and “un-PC” like a frat boy, and I already spent like four sentences talking about it without trying? Elementary is mostly inoffensive. There’s no death knell like ‘inoffensive.’

    (Also, hi – I’m your newest fellow FR at SH, so short time reading, first time commenting, I guess. *waves*)

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, competent work is boring and brilliance is rare enough that, when it occurs, I’m willing to overlook a lot of other flaws. My philosophy is that a story doesn’t need to be well-written or well-observed; it just needs to be doing something, anything, that’s interesting.