The Quest for Literary Greatness

The greatness of literature cannot be determined solely by literary standards
— T.S. Eliot 

Was it crazy to believe in this? Many said it was.

In her post, Top 10 Ways to get rejected by your dream agent, Barbara Rogan talks about fellow agent Pam van Hylckama Vlieg, who was attacked on her way to her car by a writer whom she had rejected. Naturally, Barbara used this as an opportunity to plug her book, which happens to have the same plot (an agent stalked by a writer), which makes me wonder whether this story was a ploy to boost sales (OK, maybe not), but what really incensed me was the followup section, in which Barbara jokingly lists the things writers can do to get rejected. Under the heading, Be crazy, Barbara writes, “If you have a solution to the world’s problems, let the agent know.” Really? If that scares her off, what a sad and jaded outlook she must have! Look, I realize agents receive a gajillion queries a day, most from megalomaniacs, so I cannot entirely blame them for their cynicism. On the other hand, people like Mrs. Rogan need consider the words of Gandhi, who said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Every serious writer has, at one time or another, considered the impact of their work on society. I am not crazy enough to believe that my book will result in world peace, but I do know that throughout history, men and women have been inspired by art, many of whom went on to do remarkable things. To achieve something historic, someone must first imagine doing it. If Jules Verne had not imagined man traveling to the moon, we might never have landed Apollo 11 on its surface. Outside of the Bible, the Koran and the Communist Manifesto, no single piece of writing has resulted in global change, but the collective output of an enlightened and artistic community usually does. Writers, like myself, exist as a tiny thread in the tapestry of human events.

If agents see fiction as little more than a means to a living, that view is symptomatic of their profession, not mine. Finding “solutions to the worlds’ problems” has always been part and parcel of the writer’s resume. Only recently, perhaps due to our current age of information and a flood of poorly written manuscripts, writers have been discouraged from this traditional role. All the while, scientists like Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins urge children toward scientific literacy for the express purpose of solving the world’s problems, using rhetoric reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. But the power of fiction and its impact can take many different forms.

For the past few years, the heading to my blog stated,

Fiction is a lens through which we see the truth behind reality. It touches our core values and defines who we are. It takes a life of random events and gives it meaning.

I am proud of this statement and stand by it still. Fiction encompasses a wide range of mediums, whether book, play, film, TV or video game. Even religion falls under the category of fiction, and yet is no less crucial to society. From the beginnings of history, mankind has searched for meaning, through cave art and in stories related through word of mouth. Fiction gave the men and women of antiquity the strength and inspiration to fight for survival, overcome tragedy, and cope with death. Even in our modern lives of convenience, where the wolf is no longer a threat and starvation is a rarity, we deal with challenges of purpose. We still wonder about our existence, asking the same questions as philosophers and theologians, is this all there is? We are born, we live, we die. Is it even worth suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, as Shakespeare so eloquently put it in Hamlet’s soliloquy? Without art, life is nothing more. To inspire even a single life is to change the world. 

Editors and agents act as the gatekeepers of fiction. They owe their lofty position to large populations and the necessity to weed out the “wheat” from the “chaff”. During the early days of the Internet, circa 1996-1997, when fan-fiction was practically unheard of, I was a kind of agent myself. My site, The Grayskull Library, welcomed He-Man fiction from all over the Internet. Since our community of enthusiasts was small, most anyone willing to put in the effort got their fiction posted, and the site garnered hundreds of thousands of views. A similar situation existed during prehistory. In a village of a few hundred, those born with the writer’s disease had no problem sharing their stories about the campfire. But as knowledge of our community grew, so did the number of submissions to my site. It quickly became unmanageable and I was forced to reject people. So, in many ways, I understand the difficult job of the agent, but also feel the need to be better understood and appreciated. If agents do not believe in the power of literature, they will never recognize greatness when it comes to pass through their gate. 

As a writer, my ambition has never been merely to entertain or make money (though important enterprises in and of themselves) but to inspire readers, the way other writers inspired me, to achieve what I can only describe as literary greatness. And while this may sound like the words of a megalomaniac, the difference comes from my rational belief in hard work and perseverance, without which greatness cannot be achieved, and that, while I may not be great I can reach for greatness, and if Barbara Rogan thinks me crazy for reaching so high, so be it. Henceforth, the new subheading for this blog will be:

THE WRITER’S DISEASE: THE QUEST FOR LITERARY GREATNESS 

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