I want to share an inner monologue I had while reading Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. As an aspiring writer gauging the merit of an established writer, this may come off as extremely self-deprecating, but this is not my intention.
I am committed to Kundera’s “legacy”. His is an apogee I may never surmount. Realistically, I thought about the level of greatness I was aspiring towards; Kundera, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Nabokov. Perhaps, my generation of aspiring writers is innately impaired. More than that, perhaps aspiring American writers (or any first-world aspiring writers) are aiming for a pinnacle that has closed its gates to us entirely. This concept stemmed from a very simple question.
What makes greatness?
First, let me establish what I perceive to be greatness versus legacy in terms of writers. The words are interchangeable, but for the sake of this argument they will take slightly different meanings.
To be considered a great writer is to be universally and timelessly acknowledged and lauded by fellow writers and academia in the field of literature, writing, and language. To have a legacy is to be withstanding throughout time, to be a milestone perhaps, but not necessarily recognized among peers or academia as a “Master of the Word”. Greatness is achieved through a prolific body or lifetime of work. Legacy can be achieved through one work that has a short burst of popularity that fifty years later might not ever be mentioned again. A distinguishing difference is that greatness is elected through popular vote and academia, whereas legacy is usually only popular vote (i.e., Twilight maintains popular vote, but the academia would not consider Stephanie Meyer a prolific or masterful writer, only an entertaining one.)
“Legacy” has another meaning; the sum of an entire lifetime’s work passed down through time. I know this gets confusing as I use this definition of the word in my opening paragraph to speak to Milan Kundera’s body of work and what it represents. Legacy is not necessarily accompanied by greatness. From here on I will use the words as I have defined them.
So, I pose again: What makes greatness?
After much deliberation over this question, this is what I came up with – experience. A writer that writes from experience or has experience to pen into their work is chapters ahead of the writer who only has imagination.
I am not discrediting imagination. It is impossible to be a successful writer without imagination, and some will argue that all writing is fundamentally based on imagination. I am not denying this or disagreeing with this. However, a writer that has experience has a perspective that one cannot imagine, simply because it is real. The reality comes through, sometimes subtly, in the diction, in the stylistic choices, in the vibrating passion underlying words.
Kundera experienced exile; Tolstoy experienced war. Perhaps the barrier between greatness and legacy is experience but also the timing of that experience. What macro hardship does the American author have to endure in this modern era? Most of a developed nation’s issues are reflections of internal or “micro issues” such as finding identity, finding happiness, finding love; certainly not revolution, famine or exile. Specifically, in America culture, we are in an era of tolerance. There is no real all encompassing dissidence. Americans are allowed to think and say whatever they please, and if everyone in the world disagrees with you – you cannot be persecuted, you cannot be silenced. There is no punishment; there is no consequence. (Note: Holes that I can foresee in this argument include the microaggressions and continued discriminations towards African-Americans and homosexuals. I want to make reference to these as to not seem callous but also as to why I do not consider these in this argument. I consider the struggles of the American homosexual or African-American “micro” in the global scheme of things. In America, despite skin color or sexual orientation, everyone may live with the option or potential of luxury and privilege. People who suffer from discrimination in America still have it infinitely better than in certain African or Eastern European countries.)
All the American, or first-world writer, has to offer the novel are stories about experienced micro issues and imagined macro situations. These imagined situations will be, even in the most subtle ways, evident in the novel. What makes macro situations greater than micro situations? Scope. A level of scope and understanding that cannot be imagined, only experienced. Here lies the fundamental difference between what establishes greatness.
Perhaps I will never achieve the pinnacle of Kundera because I have no understanding or experience of the macro situations that touch a nation, a world, and a people. Perhaps all first world writers are resigned to that same fate. We are born in the shadow of greatness because of the time and geographic location of our births.
Then my boyfriend derailed my dramatic train of thought by interjecting I was reaching for an excuse as to why I would fail. In which case, I have set myself up for failure before I even begin as talent isn’t confined to experience. What a killjoy… clearly he doesn’t understand that all I have are my first-world micro grievances. #FirstWorldProblems