Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Good Enough?

A commenter down below -- Pete -- suggested that my question about life experience was irrelevant because a brilliant writer can make anything interesting. And as for the rest of us, well, there's no hope. He also guessed that there are only about a dozen truly great writers per generation.

In a way he's right. There probably are only a few writers every generation who are universally acknowledged, are taught in schools, and have the staying power to last into later centuries. And it doesn't matter if they're Melville or Conrad out adventuring, or Virginia Woolf at home in bed, or Proust in his corky cell. To them the question of lifestyle is completely pointless.

But I'm not a fan of the Great Man theory of literature. I'll never be Tolstoy, which is too bad, yeah, but I think there's a place for me and all the other non-Tolstoys out there. Because the vast world of literature isn't divided into the great and the non-great; it's much, much more interesting and complex. There are books that aren't brilliant, but are pretty darn good. There are books that are okay, but have a great, unforgettable character. There are books that are pretty mediocre but that you can't, for some reason, put down. There are books that are bad but that get you through a hard time.

When I was 17 I wrote a poem that was published in The Buffalo News (I got $17.50 for it) and a crazy person mailed me a fan letter. I will never be convinced that the poem was any good at all, and I haven't actually written any poems since. But for some reason that bad poem connected with someone. I don't know what it was; maybe the grim industrial imagery? You never do know. Which is all a way of saying that 1) a piece of writing doesn't have to be great to do the essential thing, which is to connect, and 2) life is more interesting with a few bad poems in it.

I don't think everything can or should be published, just because it might be meaningful to someone, somewhere. And in general I think editors should be more picky and writers should be harder on themselves. Still, I would hate to live in world where only Geniuses were published. Because I, for one, don't want to read only the work of Geniuses.

So I guess I'm talking about Good Enough. What's good enough? Argh, I don't know. Leave that for editors.


Ray said...

I suspect if all the visitors to this site composed lists of their choices as the "truly great" writers of this generation, a compilation of the lists would produce a great many names, including a number that might be on only one list. Some lists would have a dozen names that didn't make any of the other lists.

And "universally acknowledged" is misleading. The implication is that "everybody" says a writer is "truly great." I can't name one since Shakespeare who might get more than half the votes from "everybody." L. Ron Hubbard would outscore all my favorites.


Mark said...

I come back to something Ed Skoog said to me one time. I was bellyaching about how even Philip Roth only really connects to maybe fifty thousand people out of three hundred million Americans. The rest of us, I said, could probably at best hope for a few thousand. He said (if I remember correctly) that a few thousand was more people than anyone could ever reasonably get to know by other means, and what a great thing, to connect with that many people.

Anonymous said...

That's certainly how I look at it. It's a miracle anybody's reading anything! The worldwide literary "community" is small, but it's wide, and there's no reason for it not to take all comers.

Pete said...

I was probably reacting to the other comments more than your original post, Rhian, as the commenters started pulling out Borges, Hemingway, et al to examine the issue.

But I'll keep with the spirit of my original comment. I see writing as I see tennis, or music. (I'm solidly mediocre in all three.) There are components of experience and practice, but success is ultimately limited by potential. A lot of famous artists and athletes like to say otherwise, but I think they're just trying to be nice.

Maybe the question is: what is the best way to reach my full potential as a fiction writer?

And... how do you know you're not the next Tolstoy? Seriously.

rmellis said...

I get what you're saying, Pete.

As for not being the next Tolstoy... If I was, I think I'd have seen some evidence by now!

Anonymous said...

Tolstoy is probably not the best example to use here, because he himself was not a fan of the great man theory of history. There are long passages in WAR AND PEACE in which he explains why "great men" like Napoleon actually function as pawns moved by larger historical forces. A culture in all its complexities conspires to make great writers (which helps to explain why there are so few great women writers, especially before the 20th century). All we can do is write our best work, try to get it into the world, and cross our fingers.