Tuesday, April 12, 2011

theories of literary greatness that enrage and perplex

INTERN will never forget the time she went to hear Margaret Atwood speak at her university. The auditorium was packed with adoring Canadians. There was a mood of feverish excitement. Even the ushers (who would normally be stoned to the point of psychomotor retardation) moved about briskly, their maroon vests flapping about them like wings.

Margaret Atwood spoke for something like an hour and a half. She must have said many interesting things. But the only thing INTERN remembers Margaret Atwood saying came during the question period.

A small girl, all earnestness and pigtails, had approached the mic to ask Ms. Atwood what she should do if she wanted to be a writer. It was supposed to be some cute and fuzzy moment. Margaret Atwood was supposed to give the girl a kindly grin and coo something about reading lots of books and writing every single day.

Instead, she said something that had the whole audience muttering to one another as they filed out of the auditorium a few minutes later. She compared being a great writer to being a great magician, and said you were either born with the “hands” or you weren’t. Anyone could be taught to be a good writer; but only those with the ineffable “hands” would ever be great.

Afterwards, in the bathroom line, INTERN overheard an outraged woman complaining to her companion: how dare Margaret Atwood imply that literary greatness was not an equal opportunity employer? It was undemocratic. It was something like sexism or classism—it was hands-ism.

It upset a lot of people. To this day, whenever INTERN runs into someone who was at that talk, the “hands” comment is all they talk about.


There are always a lot of theories floating around about how great artists or athletes or business tycoons become great. Here are the three most common ones INTERN has seen:

1. “Either you’re born with the hands or you ain’t.”

According to the Margaret Atwoods of the world, it’s not just unreasonable to expect that absolutely anyone can be made into a great writer—it’s downright insane. Is everyone on the planet capable of being a great long jumper or a great forklift operator? Most people can become capable at these pursuits—but greatness, Atwoodians claim, is something else.

2. “10,000 Hours.”

According to the Malcolm Gladwells of the world, greatness isn’t something you’re just born with—it’s the entirely predictable result of practicing something for ten thousand hours. Take anyone with an interest in violin, writing, or hockey, check back once they’ve logged ten thousand hours in their chosen pursuit (or when the microwave dings) and there you go—great.

3. “It doesn’t matter how hard you work—in publishing, nothing matters except HOTT CONNECTION$$.”*

According to the conspiracy theorists of the world, it doesn’t matter how much writerly talent you possess or how hard you work—haven’t you seen those stickers that say Publishing Is An Inside Job?

4. “It doesn’t matter how hard you work—in publishing, nothing matters except being HUGE ON $$$OCIAL MEDIA.”*

It’s true, guys. Didn’t you know the formula the Big 6 publishers use for calculating advances is (Twitter followers + Facebook friends)2? Srsly.


What do you think goes into the making of a great writer? Was Margaret Atwood smoking crack when she told that little girl some hard truths about hands? Or is everything possible with enough practice and willpower and education? There’s a perception that writing is more “accessible” than other pursuits because it takes no training (besides basic literacy) to get started, but is our affront really justified when it turns out to be just as hard and frustrating and unfair as ballet? Is all this preciousness about "hands" just empty snootery?

INTERN is curious to hear your thoughts. In the meantime, she will be working on some complicated juggling tricks. Really. How else is she supposed to find out if she has the hands?

*note that #3 and #4 have nothing to do with Great Writing and everything to do with Great Networking—in keeping with INTERN’s recent theme of mixing up art with business.


  1. I'd say it's a combo of all four, though the last two are of the very least importance. I'd have to agree with Atwood in the sense that #1 is the most important. So much of writing is innate. Doesn't mean we can't get better over time though.

  2. I totally agree with Ms. Atwood. You either have writing skillz, or you don't.

    I think one of the hardest things ever is actually trying to figure out if you have it or not.

    That's why writers are plagued with self-doubt. Cause there's no test you can take that tells you if you're a writer or not. It's not that simple.

  3. my 2¢: great writing is a combination of talent and hard work. you might be born with those hands, but until they've learned the mechanics they're still just moving about randomly. without some sense of what works and what doesn't, you can work at it for decades and still produce nothing but stilted, dry prose.

    the last two on the list are the present day spin on such things. every generation has had its own series of publishing hoops to jump through. it's just part of the whole publishing package nowadays.

    -- Tom

  4. I think it's a good combination of 1 and 2. Consider that she didn't say how to be a "good" writer, or how to be a "published" writer, or how to be a "paid" writer (any sod with a pen or keyboard can do those things), she said GREAT. And greatness is one of those elusive things that you can't quantify in effort or even in popularity.

    But something else you missed completely: being accepted as "great" has a lot to do with timing and luck. The moment you're printed, the way you are marketed, the crowd that is READY for your GREAT work of literary ART!!! If those things, those specific circumstances are not met, then your greatness may fall by the wayside.

    But mostly, you have to work at it, and you have to have the magic hands.

    Win earrings, free entry!

  5. I think she's on to something. While anyone can write, not everyone can write well. Even once you've made it, there are different levels of "great." I enjoy so many books, but some of these awesome authors or better authors than others. I can still enjoy them. I appreciate the most well-written authors the most...and they often get the most acclaim, as well.

  6. It sounds like Ms. Atwood did not tell this girl that she couldn't be a great writer, just that not anyone can be a great writer. Sorry, but that's true. I will never be a great singer. I could take voice lessons every day for the next ten years and I might gain better voice control, but I still won't be a great singer. Nor will I ever be a great painter or a great gymnast.

    In art and athletics some talent has to meet some discipline before you get the right mix for "great."

  7. I call bull$$$hit. Born with it? If you're a fatalist, maybe you can believe that crap. You make your own destiny. And that includes greatness. Plenty of middling talents have ridden to greatness on less than satisfactory writing skills. There is a theory that runs among certain writing circles that those who have earned their place with such "greatness" like to make it appear as though what they have is unattainable (i.e. You can only be born with it) -- thus discouraging potential competition. It's nothing but playing at King of the Mountain. You gotta climb to throw the current ruler off.

  8. The Wizard of Menlo Park is famous for saying,"Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

    Yes, talent is important but so are drive and imagination (we have all read great story-tellers who aren't great writers). Someone who works hard may succeed long before a great talent if they work harder.

  9. I don't think people should tell children they can all be fantastic writers. That seems as cruel as telling them they will grow up to be successful millionaires -- it's setting them up for painful failure. Atwood had the courage to skip the feel-good lies and give that kid actual, useable information about how the world works. Gotta get the tools from somewhere.

  10. I think a few of the commenters above me were right on, and some missed the point entirely.

    Being a GREAT writer is not the same thing as being a commercially successful writer. You can be a commercially successful writer and NOT be great, or even very good.

    To be a great AND commercially successful writer takes, IMO, inborn talent, hard work and long practice, AND good networking skills (which many very talented writers don't have.) PLUS being in the right place at the right time, aka luck.

    Would you be more proud of having written what you know is a great book, even if it doesn't find huge commercial success, or a piece of crap that was wildly popular? How do you define success, or greatness?

  11. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our three weapons are ...

  12. Curses, I lost my original comment. Ah, well, such is.

    I don't think it matters one way or the other if you have a spark or a passion, because you're going to need the 10k hours of practice either way. All other elements being equal, will a person with a spark be better than a person with only passion? Perhaps.

    Except that 'equal factors' is never going to be the reality. How, then, do you know if you're a rat-with-an-island or someone with magic Hands? (here's the reference: http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/rats-with-islands-how-to-survive-your-publishing-career/)

    Either way, I'm pretty sure that there is one in ten million or something equally ridiculous who has a genius-level spark, many more who have small sparks, and even more than that who have only passion to see them through. The important thing, imho, is that people who believe they have Hands don't get complacent. Even with a spark, (please forgive the extended metaphor) you still have to nurture that puppy to stoke it into a blaze.

    It's not a crime to write if you suck, although you should always be realistic about your abilities.

  13. Malcolm Gladwell doesn't quite say that: he says that greatness will only emerge after 10,000 hours (and no earlier), not it WILL emerge if you put in the hours. He would agree with Atwood.

  14. If this were about gymnastics, would you say that everyone has an equal chance of getting into the Olympics? Or that everyone has the potential to be a Prima ballerina? Or an NBA superstar? Of COURSE not. Why then would people assume that everyone has the potential to be a GREAT writer?

    Everyone can learn to write, and everyone can work their butts off and improve their writing. But that doesn't mean that everyone has the potential for greatness.

    Fortunately, greatness isn't required to be published or a best seller.

  15. It depends, I suppose, upon what one calls greatness. If greatness equals recognition then #3 and #4 are probably most accurate, though #1 and #2 may build sustainability.

    However, if greatness is defined by actual depth of communication and the integrity of the truth conveyed, then none of the above is true, and it's first about the character of the author, followed by the development of necessary skills. It is possible that no one ever read the work of the greatest writer in the world.

    But, in the end, it becomes a question of semantics, and no answer will ever seem entirely true all the time. I love questions that don't have answers. They make the world interesting.

  16. Was M. Atwood implying personal greatness? Because *The Handmaid's Tale* was damn great, and she's great, but I remember having a really hard time getting through *The Robber Bride* without wanting them all to blow up in Beirut.

    I've always thought that I'm pretty great, but I also always assumed I'd be an Alpha after reading *Brave New World* and an even cooler vampire than Bella in *Twilight*.

    So maybe I'm just so vain, I think this post is about me? And maybe Atwood would want to be my BFF if she met me? (I internally answered 'yes!' to both questions.)

  17. Oh, Margaret Atwood. If any living writer is allowed to have so much swagger, she is. I do believe in the hands, but agree with everyone else that they're useless unless well-trained.
    Here's the torturous question: how do you know if you really have them? A lot of brilliant writers have known paralyzing self-doubt, but then so have a lot of not-brilliant writers.

  18. Firstly, Margaret Atwood didn't actually answer the girl's question. She asked about being a writer. Nothing about being a great writer. And let's face it, bookstore shelves are lined with writers who are good, but not necessarily great. So, boo to Margaret Atwood for soapboxing instead of listening.

    However...I totally agree. I think greatness, in writing, in painting, in music, dance, long jump, Rubik's Cube solving, is innate.

    I also believe that anyone can be good, maybe very good, with the 10,000 hours of practice. But both the spark and the 10,000 hours is needed to become great.

  19. I don't give a a rat's Sunday trousers if writing proclivity is a genetic predisposition, a gladiator's regimen of training, or some chimera in-between the extremes.

    Give me passion. In the story. In the language and characters. How an author gets there is as subjective a reality and suite of circumstances as defining what's "good" and "great". Hell, I'm sure many "great" writers (plug in your own definition) can't describe what they've been doing, let alone if it was right or not.

    Proof's in the pudding. Why pose questions to the pudding, then? It hasn't the faintest idea.

  20. I disagree. First, in saying that, Atwood disqualifies herself as a great writer. I don't think she's great, and if it's something one has to be born with, she's not going to ever be great in my mind.

    But I know there are many people who do think she's great. And that brings me to the more important point.

    "Great" is subjective. Not only do different people think different authors are great, the same people will change their minds due to a whole list of factors.

    Some people are using Olympic athletes as examples to support Atwood's claim. But those people weren't born with the ability to do amazing gymnastics, or swim incredibly fast, or run as quickly as they do. They worked at it and worked at it and worked at it and worked at it until they got as great as they are.

    There's absolutely no reason the same can't hold true for writers. Most people get better with each thing they write. It's insane to say they won't achieve greatness. Especially when that term is so nebulously defined.

  21. One of the most perplexing things about this issue is the subjectivity of greatness. I really dislike Atwood's novels. I can recognize that she produces sound writing, but I find her work boring.

    I do, however, agree with her to a certain extent. I've known people who sit down and write a first draft that makes most people's third and fourth revisions look like crap. They're gifted. They do work at it, but they're also gifted; they see the world in a special way.

    King agrees with Atwood btw. He says you can be a good writer with hard work, but greatness is born though it takes hard work to achieve the full potential of that greatness. Apparently there's just no getting around the hard work part.

  22. But are the perfect-first-drafters born with it, or did they work at it? Or, alternatively, are the third-and-fourth-revisoners just unskilled? Does "great" = "perfection the first time", or can an author be great even if it takes them a few drafts to get there?

    I like Stephen King a lot. And I have a great deal of respect for him. But his opinion doesn't make something so anymore than Atwood's does.

    "Great" is still subjective, and I still think that hard work will always help someone improve. And, even if their first drafts are crap, they can get to "great", however one defines that.

  23. Oh, yikes. If Malcolm is right, I need to write for two hours every day for 13.698 years before I'll achieve literary greatness. Maybe they're all right, and we can derive a formula that goes something like:

    (hrs x innate genius) (social media x connections) + massive quantities of luck = professional success as a writer.

    Anything in there about dedication, persistence, and the sheer refusal to quit?

    I suspect the truth is as ineffable as is the answer to why anyone is called to this art in the first place.