I have theorized before that most artists (including writers) don’t deliberately set out to create terrible works. I’ve also theorized that artists must be enthusiastic about their idea to try to share it with the world. And that if an idea is compelling enough, a lack of skill is not a detriment to commercial success, although it is frustrating to every other artist with a modicum of skill who sees their work passed over time and time again.
But do artists set out specifically to create great works? When Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick, did he say to himself, “This will be the best thing EVAR!” Okay, he probably didn’t say that in those words since he was writing in the 1800s. But did he say, “This will be my masterpiece!” I don’t know. When Shakespeare wrote/shamelessly plagiarized Hamlet, did he say to himself, “This play is the height of aristocratic tragedy and shall endure long beyond my few hours upon the mortal stage” (personally, I think he was thinking [in Elizabethian English of course], “Heh. Crazy dude talks to skulls.”). Some artists are so egotistical they do think every work they produce is Great Work. Sometimes what they consider their masterpieces are not what the world considers to be their masterpieces. Maybe some artists do say, “This will be my masterpiece!” but they mean it in the narrow context of continually striving to make each work better than the last.
I know anecdotally of artists who set out to create a Great Work (how many people set out to write the Great American Novel, for example?). I have no idea how well this works out since so many artists are not recognized for their Great Works immediately and often not even during their lives (Melville, for example, endured scathing criticism of Moby-Dick). But artists, as I may have mentioned, while egotistical are almost constantly plagued by self-doubt (“I am such an idiot! Why did I pick this Lisa woman to paint? I’ll never get her smile right!”). Perhaps they became aware of the potential greatness of their work in the process (“Rosebud! It’s so brilliant!”). Or maybe they finished their work and then thought the whole thing was just a mess (“’Bum bum bum bum!‘ Stupid stupid stupid! They’ll just think I’m some deaf old man beating on the pianoforte because I can’t hear it!”).
I’ve had a few conversations with others about what makes a Great Work. I’m not sure any concrete conclusions were drawn, but the discuss was interesting. There is a stereotype that artists must suffer for their work. Great suffering = Great Work. I’m not sure that’s true, but suffering seems to be a theme in the lives of many artists (Hemingway as an alcoholic, Van Gogh cut of his ear…). Since artists are only a sum of their life experiences (as we all are), it would be unlikely that great suffering did not influence great artists. Whatever you make think of Dickens, Hard Times is one of the bleakest portrayals of Industrial England I have ever read (and I think it’s better than some of his “great works”), and based on his childhood experiences. Not all artists have to suffer personally for their art; they only have to be a keen observer of human nature and suitably sympathetic to the human condition (Nathaniel Hawthorn, after all, was not actually a Puritan woman).
Not all artists produce many Great Works either. Sometimes they only produce one Great Work (the “one-hit wonder”) even though they continually try to produce art. Some are tragically struck down after only a single Great Work so we never know the full extent of their potential. Some only make a brief venture into the arts that produces the Great Work, but then life and other complications force a withdrawal from the arts, and again their full potential is never known. Mary Shelley wrote a short novel about a man and the monster he created (both figuratively and literally) but I doubt she had any idea how influential Frankenstein would be, and she was married to a poet and hung around with Lord Byron, so it’s not as though she didn’t know artists. But she also had a troubled life and turned her attention away from the arts so Frankenstein is all she’s really known for (although her other works are getting more attention).
I’m almost certain many artists had no idea of the greatness of their work at the time it was created, even ones that were critically well-received. Some artists despised what are popularly considered to be their greatest works (Tchaikovsky really hated “The Nutcracker” but it remains one of his most popular and well-known pieces). Some artists probably created their greatest works out of fear (Shostakovich and his Fifth Symphony come to mind [although to me, I can’t believe he got away with that]). Some were probably just trying to earn a paycheck. I know, I’ve argued that producing art on a deadline is most likely not going to result in a Great Work, but it doesn’t mean it can’t (“I’ll show that Pope what a ceiling for God can really look like!”).
I had conversations with Writer G about producing Great Work versus junk. In some ways, I’ve come around to his point of view. Great Works are subjective, and the artists themselves often over or under-value their works. An artist that sets out to create something Deep and Meaningful is not probably not going to succeed. I also begin to see some value if not in junk but in just entertaining works. Not every work has to be a Great Work to be enjoyed. Even a good work has merit. I still maintain junk has no merit, but that’s a different rant.
After all this, my working theory is that the combination of circumstances necessary to produce a Great Work are hard to put into place beforehand. This may make it sound like I think Great Works are an accident. I prefer to think of them as serendipity – everything just comes together. As for me, do I want to write a Great Work of Fiction? Yes! Am I going to set out to do that? No. Are there times I’m writing and I think to myself, “Wow, this is good stuff!” Of course, but being in my own head makes me doubt my opinion of my own work (I’m not literally seeing the forest for the trees, but as close to literally as that metaphor gets). I’ll write what I like to the best of my ability (I still think skill matters for Greatness if not success) and see what happens.