Implicit in my question -- and I think my readers saw this -- was a bit of scorn. "Do you think you'll all that and a bag of chips?" I may have been asking. Or: "Are you a big fat egotistical ass?"
But then several writers whom I love and admire emailed, IMed, and commented in such thoughtful ways I wanted to give this another go. I think I'll let them speak for themselves:
(In a series of emails)
"I must say, if someone is writing, and isn't striving for greatness, I think it's time to quit.
"Greatness can't be described! It can't be achieved! It's an "outside" evaluation! Really? Really? I mean how does someone who thinks that way determine when a story is ready to be sent out? Part of what we do as writers, a very big part, is to learn to evaluate our own work, and certainly we can evaluate whether we are even trying to achieve greatness, or just settling for easy enough. Of course, we fail. But if a writer isn't even trying? The failure is more profound.
"I don't think "great" comes along that often. I certainly don't think it's come to me. Also, I don't think we can know what is great in the world or in our society, generally, until the work has survived for decades. Very many great, or near great artists die in obscurity so I don't equate great, in any way, with famous. However, I do believe a writer should aspire. Frankly, I think lack of aspiration shows in a lot of work, and even a lot of published work, but really, what's the point of that? People say they just want to be happy and decent and that sort of thing, and I know that to do so is not as easy as some would believe but that attitude has nothing to do with writing.
Kindness is part of my spiritual practice actually, and I fail at it all the time. But creating something which is worth the time spent to produce it? I think that calls for a fierce attitude and a desire to produce something better than the last thing written, or read for that matter. It's not about competition, it's about extending this incredible conversation we've had through fiction, discovering new boundaries within the limitless word, it's about the distant, unlikely possibility of saying something new.
"Also, reading the comments on Nick's piece, quite a few people say that the ego will get in the way if a writer aspires to greatness, whereas I believe the ego is in the way when one doesn't. It's a lot easier to not really try than to try, and confront one's limitations."
(Cobbled together from an IM conversation)
"I remember it being very important, at 19 or 20, to answer for myself the question of whether I would rather be great or happy. This seemed (and maybe was?) an absolutely existential, life-changing, immediately urgent question. I went for happy, which is part of why I gave up writing. [Editor's note: Ben gave up writing for about a decade when he was younger.]
"I mean, if you were in an elevator with Stephen Hawking and you asked him 'So do you think you're a great physicist?' And he was like: 'Well, yeah,' you would be scornful? You just despise pretension.
"I am also torn about 'great.' Partly, I think it's a patriarchal plot. And partly I think anything worth doing is worth doing well, and greatness is just excellence, and that is a noble aim in writing, cooking, or sweeping.
"The part of greatness which is not excellence is probably toxic bullshit. At the very least it means some kind of isolation, and loneliness. And who needs that? I do want to refuse to accept any limits on how excellent I allow myself to be. Not to settle and say, "Well I'm only a
"But on the other hand, I think there is something suspicious, too, about 'Don't dare go too far.' There's a knowing-your-place aspect. Don't get uppity. Above your station.
"I would rather be happy than great, and I would rather, by far, be a great dad than a great writer. But there is a difference between 'How do I handle this resource tradeoff correctly?' vs 'I do not wish to be great at one of these things.'
"Hell, I even would wish to strive for greatness on the rugby field even though it's totally unattainable there!
"Maybe we should eschew 'greatness' for 'excellence.'"