In the introduction to his magisterial anthology, the late John Gross declined to offer a definition of good prose. His taste was as catholic as his knowledge was deep and wide, but it was also sure. Gross included examples of the flowery and the spare, the tragic and the comic, the poetical and the matter-of-fact in his book, but every extract was good of its type. On the matter of good prose, Gross was truly ecumenical.
If Gross, who probably knew more English prose than any man who ever lived, could not define the quality that made prose good, it is unlikely that anyone else ever will be able to do so: certainly not Dr Rowan Williams, late Archbishop of Canterbury. It is odd that The Guardian should have published an essay by him, titled A Summons to Writers, on this very subject, for Dr Williams is a writer who generally avoids cliché only by resort to vagueness or obscurity. Alas, he has never taken to heart (or head) the distinction made by his predecessor in the Church, Bishop Butler, between perplexity and confusion of thought, the former inhering in the subject, the latter being in the mind of him who would express himself. Of course, this does not mean that Dr Williams’ prose is altogether valueless: a bad example is, in a sense, a good example, for it teaches us what to avoid.
Read it all at the New English Review.