When it comes to greatness for an artist there are basically two types of it: artists who are so great they inspire you to keep doing your own art no matter the long odds you face, and artists who are so great they inspire you to drop your pencil, paintbrush, camera, songbook, etc. and go back to school to pursue something else, anything else, because there’s no way you’re making it as an artist. To the former people, the newly inspired, they feel empowered: “If they can do it, why can’t I?” To the latter people, the newly deflated: “If they can do it, how can I?” The truth, this time, is not in the middle, but hews closer to the latter example. You probably can’t. Scarcity is real, and so is rejection.
Rejection letters are mostly out of your control, but overcoming self-doubt might not be. One of my friends went to graduate school for journalism at Northwestern and related the story of her first day there. In one of her classes the professor asked students to raise a hand if they were there, partly, to eliminate their self-doubt. After the all-too-knowing nervous laughter faded (but before the hundreds of hands had fallen back to earth), the teacher said, “Well, I’m sorry, but I’m not here to coddle you with platitudes. Believing in yourself and working hard, while important, guarantee nothing. And you are never going to eliminate your self-doubt. Never. The sooner you accept this, the sooner we can get to work.” The tension immediately left the room, my friend said. It’s like the skydiving instructor who, when asked what will happen if a parachute does not open when you pull the chord from 10,000 feet, answers “You die.” That kind of simple honesty—the kind present in what my friend’s professor said—relieves pressure more effectively than coddling will ever do.
Greatness, and achieving it as an artist, assuming you achieve anything at all, is much less simple, much more like the process of creation itself. For one thing there is the problem of defining greatness. What makes a work of art or an artist great? Since the interpretation and analysis of art is entirely subjective, it is almost an unanswerable question. Unlike, say, a sport or a financial institution, where greatness can be measured by numbers or statistics (and even in those realms there is a certain amount of subjectivity), no such metric exists for the arts. Keeping to the writing world, you can say that so-and-so won a Pulitzer or some such other award, but choosing a winner, let alone the finalists, is subjective as well. Or you can say that so-and-so spent X number of weeks on the New York Times bestseller lists. That doesn’t help, either, because there is a difference between being popular and being great. Though there is occasionally crossover, and a popular book or best seller can also be considered “great,” in general the more popular a book is the less “great” is. And a statement like that, no matter its accuracy, illustrates how problematic defining greatness can be. To readers who prefer Nora Roberts or John Grisham or any book from Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club, their defenses go up. What is “greatness,” they say, and anyway a book does not have to be “great” to have value. Who are you to tell me that Tolstoy is better than Nora Roberts? At least she’s readable, unlike Pynchon or Joyce or Gaddis or any of that other post-modern garbage you literary types enjoy. Fair enough. But that will lead us into the high art/low art discussion, a true morass, and one we can avoid for now.
So let’s keep it simple and borrow from George Orwell. In his essay about Charles Dickens, he noted “For any work of art there is only one test worth bothering about—survival.” Why be an artist? Maybe to make some money doing something you love. Maybe to prove it the brother who said you never could. Maybe to tell stories. To create, to share your vision of the world, to bare your soul, to express yourself, to foster a sense of beauty in a barren world. We may want some of those things or all of them, but if we are being honest we also want to be immortal. We don’t merely want to write a novel, we want to be read 100 years from now, even as our physical selves have become atomised. We want, in other words, to be great.
As much as we might have our ideas, we can’t really know if the works of Nora Roberts or Milan Kundera will survive in the next 100 years. I don’t mean survival in the physical sense. Orwell could not have anticipated the digital revolution and the ease with which we can preserve texts. Depending on where you sit, it’s either good news or bad news that we will be able to read Nora Roberts as surely as we will be able to read Milan Kundera—not to mention the millions of others who have an on-line presence who don’t belong with Roberts or Kundera. But that is a choice Orwell did not have, and from his seat, listening to the bombs fall over London as he wrote during World War II, he could easily say that Dickens was great because he had survived—the proof was the presence of his books on Orwell’s shelves. (It’s true that second-hand bookstores existed in Orwell’s time, too, and they no doubt contained many dime store novels and likewise cheap fare in addition to Dickens.)
If we are discussing, in basic terms, what it means to be a great artist, it is instructive to establish what it means not to be great. In other words, what of Dickens’ contemporaries who did not survive? While Orwell does mention a few who also pass the survival test (Thackeray, for example), there is no mention of those who didn’t. For those of us reading Dickens at the beginning of the 21st century, the list of his contemporaries is thus incomplete. We can’t get a true appreciation of his greatness if we are unable to analyse those fellow writers who did not pass the survival test. Why does Orwell not discuss them and offer us samples of their work, so that we may compare and contrast and judge for ourselves who is better? Where are they?