There is good and bad writing – but in writing, like all art, quality is really measured by the consumer…sort of.
There are technical elements which make some writers “better” than others. For example, structure, grammar, literary device usage etc. These are things that people use to quantify writing. Like in any art form, writers use a tool set to develop their final product. Someone who masters these tools and uses them effectively to produce something (like a novel) could be considered a “better” writer. These novels get recognized by literary boards and people who have studied writing enough to pick these things out. The whole purpose of these awards is to recognize creative and effective usage of these literary tools. Much like painters use shading, perspective, proportions, colors, light and a whole slew of other principles to create a picture, a writer uses exposition, dialogue, analogies, characters, and so many other things to write a story. Ideally, their art and story transcend the crude materials to create feelings or emotions and take the reader to an experience but that’s the subject for a totally different post.
All of that said, there is definitely substance to the argument that grammar and language are not the most important part of writing. There’s a reason that J.K. Rowling is the richest person in the UK (or at least that’s the rumor I heard) and The DaVinci Code has hundreds of spinoff books, documentaries and a feature film. Some writers are more appealing to the mass/general reading audience. (Also, some just have better publicists). It’s the same reason Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise will never win academy awards but will always sell movies which, when it’s all boiled down, is another great way to quantify quality. It may not carry the prestige of a Pulitzer but it sure reaches a large audience of every day people and the writer is living much more comfortably when they go to the bank. If you’re looking to reach lots and LOTS of people then you probably want something with more mass appeal than technical prowess because it’ll be lost on many readers. I learned this lesson when I was working on films. A director I worked with wanted to make 2 movies – one was an ‘art film’ and the other was a crowd pleaser. He had to make the crowd pleaser to fund the art film because the art film spoke to a very small audience. Which was the better movie? I’m not sure. The crowd pleaser made a whole lot more money and reached a much larger audience but the art film was technically excellent.
An interesting twist on this whole thing is that your commercial career typically skyrockets when you win an award like a Pulitzer or a Newberry or an Academy Award because it can go right on the cover of every book you publish after that so a lot of people will “campaign” for awards – making them less and less about writing. Conversely, writers with nothing but commercial success often fall into the trap of letting their writing atrophy because they rehash the same story using the same techniques over and over until their audience quits reading from boredom. In order to continue their success they have to try and garner these awards because, by improving their technical skills, they avoid boring readers and they get that nifty seal on their books which will jump their book sales. Not to mention it will help them be better technically and more versatile as writers.
So, which one is “right” or “better”? Both. It really depends on your goals as to whether your writing accomplishes its purpose or not. Artistic success and commercial success are two different sides of the same coin – you don’t have to look at the other side, but sometimes it helps to know that it is there.