I recently watched Braveheart again. I was reminded of one of the most famous lines from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “Some people have greatness thrust upon them.” William Wallace was great, not only as a literary character, but as a real person. He did not set out to be a hero or important, and he would not be noteworthy if he were set in different circumstances.
It made me wonder about some of my favorite writers. Would they be less great if they lived in a different place and time? Consider Hemingway. What kind of writer would have been if he had not lived in Paris in the 20s? He would have never known James Joyce or Gertrude Stein. What if he had never been a reporter for the Kansas City Star? He might not have developed the minimalist style he is known for. If circumstances were any different, he may not have become the celebrated writer, or possibly not even a writer at all.
Perfect v. Great
There are many writers I enjoy, but some to me are perfect. Writers like Steinbeck, O’Conner, and Porter are great, but then to me, Hemingway is perfect. So are Fitzgerald and Faulkner. Are there not three American writers more different? And yet, in my book, each of them has gone as far as a writer can go, and their writing leaves me in awe.
Maybe these three would not be so recognized if they lived in a different place and time. I don’t know, because such is mere speculation. Maybe their greatness was thrust upon them by the shapes of life. Or maybe not. It’s possible that Shakespeare would have been just as great living in 19th century Georgia or 20th century Russia.
Perfection In Art
No celebrated writer would be considered great, much less perfect, without the dedication and hard work it takes to learn the craft. That has to weigh more in the end than time and place since we know learning to write matters greatly. It makes no sense to speculate as to whether I’d be a better or more celebrated writer if I had hobnobbed with other American expatriates in Paris just after the Great War.
I have no control over were and when I live, but I do have a say in how I live wherever or whenever I do. This is more than deciding to do my best as a writer, but to see composition as a serious and valuable artform.
I plan to follow up this post with another article next week. But I do want to say that literature as fine art is a deliberate choice the writer makes. Without this choice we can never be great, much less perfect, even if by perception. Anyone can ride a wave or hit a stride and be popular for a little while. But to create a work of fine art is incredible. We should all strive to create that which will be added to the canon of the industry of such people as Hemingway Mozart, or Rembrandt. A writer should strive for permanence, not popularity.