Orsayor: Rickey, Can you define what a great author is to you?
Rickey: Thank you for having me as your First Guest for One on One with Orsayor. Below is my response....
Asking for it!
I am blessed to have been asked numerous times if I would be interested in being interviewed and providing the world with a little insight as to what makes Rickey Teems II tick. With forums ranging from television and radio to events and internet, the one thing that always sticks in the back of my mind as I graciously accept the offer…why the hell would anybody care what I have to say?! I mean, I’m boring, ignorant, and I am not even going to bring up what they say about my breath! But, thank God he works in mysterious ways and no one else has raised that question just yet. And speaking of raising questions, despite millions of interviews, maybe not, but “millions” sounds like a nice round , baller number to start at, surprisingly, one question that an interviewer has yet to ask, possibly because it borders on “too personal” and maybe too adult: What is Rickey Teems’ favorite position? Hold on, my hand caught a cramp and I hit the question mark on accident. Wait, you didn’t think I was talking about “position” as in…oh shame shame you know your name! What I meant to say, what is my favorite position…on the possibility of revising the Constitution given technological advancement and the current state of America’s financial downturn? See, if you would’ve kept the freak on the leash and let me finish. But truth be told, I do understand why neither of those questions are probably asked, other than a quick reference to the Kama Sutra, books and literature would have minimal significance.
Another question I don’t recall ever hearing or answering, but seems like it would have a little more literary bearing: What makes a great author? See, I’ve heard, who do I consider to be great authors? What great authors have influenced me? And some very kind, obviously highly intellectual people have even gone as far to label me a great author (who cares if they reeked of marijuana and were half drunk! It’s their opinion and we should respect it). Yet, at some point, I think for the sake of humanity, maybe we should define what actually makes a great author, before we start labeling people with that honored distinction. I’m not claiming the following are the only factors, but let’s examine five critical areas that may help us narrow down a solid definition.
The first trait I think should be considered in defining a great author, are the quality and quantity factors. Are there a minimum number of books an author must put out to be great? Or could one really awesome, life changing book be enough? I have met several authors who brag about the dozens of titles they have released. But after consulting with readers on those same authors, they typically agree (for any given author) that over half the plots in the books are the same, just different characters, one third of the books were just “alright,” and maybe two or three were actually good. Certainly this isn’t the case with all authors who have dropped multiple titles, but it is a pretty common occurrence. Compare that to the one hit works of authors by the names of Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, and Ralph Ellison. For those that don’t recognize these names, they are the respective authors of To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone with the Wind, and The Invisible Man. Three novels that have unequivocally helped shape the face of literature as well as lives, yet, none of these authors ever published another book after those iconic classics (Ellison had additional books released, but after his death). Would anyone dare dispute those are not great authors? Is it feasible to say that any of those three books holds far more significance than the two or three good books of a decent author? Obviously there is no debate if an author puts out several great books, but where exactly should the line be drawn when it comes to quantity versus quality? This is difficult, but I’m going to say that an author can have one phenomenal book to be considered great. And if they have multiple titles that are all considered good to great, then that solidifies their status as great. But if they have two or more books from a sizable catalog (6+ books) that are considered flops, then that’s just a good author, not great. See, you can write a great book and not be a great author, because additional, sub-par titles can drag down your credibility. It’s important to remember, greatness doesn’t take a break, and neither should those who want to be known by this status.
I think next it’s important to consider book sales when discussing greatness. Do they matter? In the time-honored novels we mentioned above (To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone with the Wind, and The Invisible Man), not only did they win esteemed awards around the world, been translated into several languages, been used in school curriculum, adapted into eternal films, and blah blah blah, but as far as I can tell, they have probably sold close to one hundred million copies between the three of them! There are not many books that will ever achieve that unprecedented level of acclaim, but is there a minimum sales mark that should be met for “great author” status? Does popularity always mean great? Sure, I’ll agree that if something is considered great, you would think there is some level of widespread applause, but is that always the case? For those that say yes, I would ask, how many times do you hear “great” songs played on the radio? Generally, you hear popular, right? What’s hot at the moment doesn’t necessarily mean great. I’m not going to try and uncover some big, hidden aliens and assassination of MLK government conspiracy, but there is a certain level of politics that undeniably come into play when you talk about media outlets, and that can have an influence on book sales. Not to mention cultural norms that may have a high impact (i.e. buying books versus borrowing them). For this category I think we will say, book sales are important, but they are not the end all be all to being a great author. Once a great book is published, it is recorded in the sands of time. And whether a great book has sold one copy, or one million, if history were to propel it into the future, it would still be great.
Another important element is whether a consensus of readers/critics/maybe stalkers? Is needed to determine if an author is great or not. Some people might argue that book sales reflect a consensus, but like the cause of a mid-life crisis, there are some shades of grey there. I’m inclined to think book sales indicate popularity, not greatness. I’m sure everyone has had that experience where you hear or anticipate so much about this or that, and then when you buy it yourself it turns out to be a W-T-F moment. Whether it was a cell phone, album, strip club entry fee (word to the wise, have a friend go in and scout it out before everyone pays) or favorite author’s book, many of us have gotten up for that big let down! So no, sales are not an accurate measure of whether the majority think something is great. A majority opinion however, should be. Coming to a consensus on whether an author is great is no easy feat. You may as well try campaigning for the Tea Party to vote for Obama. With so many different genres of writing and so many reader preferences, how can we level the playing field? Should a diehard street lit fan have a vote on determining the greatness of a Christian fiction author, or is that a conflict of styles? And what about those spiteful critics that apparently haven’t had sex or a smile in years, and are now wound so tight they could swallow a piece of coal and, well, you know, pull a 14 carat sparkler out the toilet. I once had a reviewer say they loved my novel, Regression, but didn’t think it could actually happen. Um, yeah, really? I’m pretty sure that’s why it is in that little section called fiction. Nevertheless, that’s just one opinion, not the consensus. Even if it had been reiterated by a couple of people, again, we’re talking majority. And that works the other way as well. One or two individuals may feel an author is the greatest thing since the invention of “free,” but a minority of positive opinions may be a great moral victory for an author, but it does not make him or her great. While establishing a bridge between genres may never happen, for the sake of definition, I will say a consensus is necessary for all readers/critics familiar with an author. I’m sure most of us have never driven a Lamborghini Gallardo on the Autobahn, but I’m pretty sure if we did, we’d all agree it was a great car. And isn’t that what great does, captivate all audiences once they have the privilege of experience?
Next we have to consider creativity. If this isn’t the most intangible category, I don’t know what is! Creativity can take on so many forms, and artistic genius is practically impossible to measure. Look how many people passed on rapper Eminem when he was trying to get a record deal, and now he is arguably one of the top ten emcees of all time. There are so many questions to consider in the arena of creativity. Especially because we live in a society that prefers to emulate what’s “hot,” rather than create new heat. So, is it acceptable for a great author to only write one genre, or should they be able to reach vast audiences? If they can write only one genre, how much more dominant must they be over the rest of the pack? How innovative must they be? Is it okay if they write similar stories to everybody else, just better, or must they break new ground? One of my favorite authors, Michael Crichton, wrote science fiction. But one of those books was about finding a formula to bring dinosaurs back to life and having them run crazy! That’s a little way outside the box! But even with that, is there a line between fiction and non-fiction greatness? I loved reading about T-Rex biting a man’s head off, but is that more creative than Dr. Ivan Van Sertima’s, They Came Before Columbus, that reads like science fiction, but is actually an inspiring real life history lesson on the global successes of African’s prior to the slave trade, a lesson that most people will never get in public school? Fiction versus non-fiction, does that affect greatness? One is likely to be of great entertainment, the other is likely to be great education, and does real life hold more value than make believe? Since some of these questions may not have definitive answers, but we need some sort of objectivity on this obscure paragraph (mainly so I can quit rambling), I will simply say that creativity, whether fiction, non-fiction, old genre or new breed, must be relatable to people, and the more relatable it is, the closer to greatness that author becomes.
Some may argue this next category shouldn’t even be a category, but to them I say, enjoy the friendly debate or option two…go get your own article. So here’s the final component (at least for the sake of article brevity) for contemplation, does an author have to be of a certain personality to be great? ( i.e. Does a great author have a commitment to community or society because of their platform? Does giving back make a difference or can they walk around spitting on people and smacking kids as long as they write great books? Should they take some sort of political stand for the good of others? How much weight should character hold?) I often marvel how the media condemns athletes and entertainers when they do anything wrong. Seriously, it’s not like you need to high morals to hit a jumper or high integrity to memorize movie lines. Maybe high focus, but not ethics. It’s not like Kobe Bryant vowed to live a righteous life for the good of all humanity for his shot in the NBA. No, he promised to play hard and try to bring in some championships, and that’s all I would expect. If anything, it’s the politicians, police, judges, etc., who swear oaths to serve the public that should be headlining the news when they mess up. But whatevs, no common sense tangents today. So if authors are considered entertainers, and entertainers are considered role models (I don’t agree that they should be, but it is what it is), then does a great author need to meet this requirement? This is tough, but because I believe great requires doing more…yes, there is some level of responsibility. Whether this is achieved through writing about issues in their work, volunteering time, donating money, speaking out publicly, or any of the infinite ways to express some form of selflessness, it should be a requirement for great. Sure, the argument that a great book is still a great book despite the author’s shortcomings is completely relevant, but we all have issues! So those that actually work to better themselves as well as those around them, and still find time to put out a great book, deserve to be placed in a higher category than those that simply serve their own interest.
So what have we learned here today? If nothing else, I think it is pretty evident why people have dreaded asking me what makes a truly great author. Clearly there is not enough time and patience in an interview for the amount of rambling and debating I am capable of. But seriously, I can only think of one question that would be more arguable than what makes a great author; what is the best book of all time. Don’t worry; I’m too typed out to try addressing that one today. But I think we pondered some healthy elements that cannot be ignored when defining literary greatness. Quality is a standard that has to trump quantity. Though book sales are not essential, a strong majority of reader endorsement by those exposed to the author is. Creativity must far exceed the norm. No cookie cutters allowed. And a truly great author makes statement on and beyond the pages. They are the type of genuinely considerate people that make readers proud to call them a favorite. Great must be more than just books. Great must define and set the bar for literature. Readers, will you hold authors to these standards as a minimum? Authors, will you be great?