Sunday, November 14, 2010

from the BRG archives: ranting on Amy

In Little Women, there is a scene where Amy, after seeing the great works of Europe, decides to give up her ambitions as an artist. Why, Laurie asks, “with so much energy and talent?”

“… because talent isn't genius, and no amount of energy can make it so,” Amy responds, “ I want to be great, or nothing. I won't be a common-place dauber, so I don't intend to try any more.”

Alcott writes this in an approving tone; as if she is applauding Amy for having the maturity to give up on her dreams. Even as a child this bothered me. What was she trying to say? If you can’t achieve greatness, don’t even bother? That your efforts are merely wasted energy in the vortex of creative geniuses? That only the immature, vain and spoiled cling to their disparate talents?

I suppose this rankles a bit deeper in me now that I’ve become an author on the mid-list. Mid-list authors realize how elusive greatness is. Like the sky, no matter how high you climb, it is always above you.

Everyday I am humbled by the amazing works around me; and time and time again I’ve been forced to accept that there are achievements beyond my capabilities. But, still I refuse to accept that striving for it is childish hubris. Maybe it is true "that talent is not genius and no amount of energy will make it so"; but what is more noble than attempting to fulfill your potential? Is it better to waste the gifts you are given because you doubt what you can accomplish? Perhaps, greatness is not the power to awe others, but the satisfaction of excelling within your own limitations.

At one point, Amy thinks of Laurie, “If that's the way he's going to grow up, I wish he'd stay a boy.” I feel the same way about her.

Originally published Aug. 3, 2006


Kellye said...

I had forgotten about this scene! Thank you for your interesting post. There is a lot to think about here, especially the concepts of talent, genius, hard work, persistence, the joy of creating and how to measure a writer's success.

One thing you wrote, though, bothers me. You said, "Mid-list authors realize how elusive greatness is. Like the sky, no matter how high you climb, it is always above you." I may be misunderstanding that statement, but, to me, this sounds like sales equals greatness. And maybe that's one way to measure it (the number of readers you reach). But sales have nothing to do with literary greatness, in my mind. Of course, how individual readers react to books is so individual--what is great literature to one is not to another.

Thanks for stretching my thinking this morning. I may need more coffee!

Jeni said...

This is a really interesting post (and makes me want to look at Little Women again -- I loved it as a child, and I agree: it did seem as though the author approved of Amy's decision). I was surprised to realize that your work is considered "mid-list" (and maybe I need to brush up on that term). You won a Newbery Honor, after all. In terms of level of greatness (or awesomeness), that would seem to put you higher than mid-list, as the majority of middle-grade authors will never receive this honor.

Hard work alone may not help a writer achieve a level of genius -- but hard work can certainly help a writer reach beyond what he may have thought was his potential.

Anonymous said...

This got me thinking of the term "midlist" - and wikipedia has an entry:

It defines midlist in terms of sales only. Books that get critical acclaim could still be 'midlist' in terms of sales, just as a mediocre book could luck out and be a bestseller. So 'midlist' in of of itself should not to be seen as a measure of literary quality. Good books, good movies, good music - do not always have good sales. Of course, the best is when the two can come together - when a quality book also is a bestseller for an author.

[and while I never read Little Women, I was scarred for life by seeing the scene in the movie where one sister throws the others manuscript into a fire!]

Unknown said...

I can tell this is from the archives because I don't think you can really refer to yourself as a mid-list author anymore!

This scene always bothered me as well and it is an attitude that I've run into off and on over the years. I just love how you approach it here!

Libby Koponen said...

Good point, Sarah!

And just think, Grace: if you'd reacted like Amy, you'd never have won the Newbery.

I like Amy as a character now (I didn't as a child), and actually respect anyone's decision NOT to pursue a career in the arts...not because only geniuses should do it (definitely don't agree with that) but for other reasons that might sometime be worth a post.

Anyhow fun to see this, Grace!

Grace Lin said...

Thanks, everyone for your comments. I wrote this 4 years ago so my ideas about mid-list, greatness and achievements have changed a lot since then--it's really interesting (at least to me!). I think now I would have deleted the word "midlist" and said, "ALL authors realize how elusive greatness is," as that is more in line to what I feel now.

I also have gained respect for someone who decides not to pursue a career in the arts as well. I think over time, I've realized pursuing "greatness" comes in many forms and sometimes it is "greater" to release certain dreams for different ones.

Kellye said...

Grace (and all),

Thanks for your interesting update! I think it all comes down to doing things for the right reasons (eg. NOT out of fear). Speaking of fear, I'd be scared to revisit my opinions from four years ago, let alone have them posted publicly--LOL.

In terms of "greatness," books were a lifeline for me as a kid, and I think it's such a thrill to see people like you writing such amazing stories for young people. That changes lives for the better. That's "greatness" in my mind.

Anonymous, I'd forgotten about that manuscript in the fire! I think Amy did that (didn't she)? Oh, that's just a killer scene...can't believe all I've forgotten about that book...loved it as a kid and re-read as an adult, but a few years ago.

Courtney Autumn Martin said...

I have to believe that true success is not reflected by how "great" we become but in how much sincere passion we have for what we do.

This goes not only for creative and artistic minded people but for anyone and everyone, no matter what they're striving to achieve. In the end, we can not control the value society places on our contributions, so we must simply forge ahead with good intentions, dedication, and love for how we chose to spend our days.

reg in Alaska said...

It's been a few years since I re-read Little Women (but those many times I read it as a girl have stuck with me forever). But my take on that scene is that Amy was always so self-impressed and certain of herself and that this new humility was a step forward for her character -- I didn't read it as being approval of giving up dreams. And perhaps the whole individual dream that is pursued is more of a 20th century idea and wouldn't have been looked upon so kindly in an era with less plenty. After all, Amy was in Europe only because of the largesse of Aunt March; Amy's branch of the March family was near poverty. Her pursuit of art may have been looked upon as less than responsible. Look at the choices the others made: Meg married John and opted for genteel poverty like her parents and Jo married Mr. Baer and opened a school. I'm not saying these are the better choices -- just that these seem to be the choices that Louisa May Alcott may have found more noble at the time.