Dreams on Ice

As we move ever closer to the 2014 Winter Olympics, I’m getting excited.  I’m not much of a sports fan, but I do like the Winter Games.  My favorite, of course, is the figure skating.  The Olympics is rarely free of controversy, from the infamous Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan circus of 1994 to the 2002 score fixing scandal that lead to a badly needed overhaul of the whole system.  This year it’s already begun, albeit in a comparatively low-key way, with the placement of Ashley Wagner on the women’s team over Mirai Nagasu, despite the fact that Mirai was the Bronze Medalist in the US National Championship while Ashley finished fourth. 

Many people responded to the committee’s decision harshly; former Olympic skater Johnny Weir called it “outrageous.”  But gold medalist Brian Boitano was more sanguine, calling it “heart wrenching” but understandable.  The placement decision is based on a number of complex criteria, of which ranking in the Nationals is only a part.  Of significance is a skater’s overall body of performance over the season, and beyond.  Consistency is important, as is the ability to face the expected international competition.  And there are, no doubt, less tangible considerations; it’s hard to discount the possibility that the Olympic committee took into account how Ashley had been just barely passed over for the 2010 team.  And, in all honesty, I’m happy Ashley made the team, and had been rooting for her the whole way.  But seeing the heartbreak in Mirai’s face while she skated her exhibition performance at the end of the Nationals was indeed wrenching. 

On the other hand, the placement of surprise silver medalist Polina Edmunds on the team will, I guarantee, lead to an entire commentary angle during the coverage of the games.  Polina is just fifteen years old, as is Julia Lipnitskaia, who won the European championship and secured a spot on the Russian team.  Sports media seizes on any opportunity to create a story, particularly one with a perceived “rivalry,” whether it exists or not.  Combine that with society’s fondness for young girls and you can be certain there will be many references to the “Battle of the Fifteen-Year-Olds” in the coming days.

Hmm… “Battle of the Fifteen-Year-Olds” sounds like an excellent title for a Young Adult novel, doesn’t it?  In fact, that’s the premise of most of them out there these days.  Just imagine: a bunch of cute little girls go out into the rink armed with razor-sharp knives on their feet, giving new meaning to competitive skating, until only one remains standing on blood-soaked ice.  You know somebody’s going to write it.  You know a lot of people will want to read it.  Just remember where you heard it first.

Getting back to the main issue, there’s a clear lesson: despite Mirai’s arguably better performance (it’s all subjective, of course), she didn’t make it.  In other words, you can try your hardest and do the best you can do, but, ultimately, there are no guarantees.  Your best may not be good enough, even if someone else makes it when they weren’t as good.  This reveals one of American culture’s most cherished values to be a blatant lie.  We tell children, “You can do anything you want if you try hard enough.”  Obvious bullshit.

How can this be?  How can such injustice prevail?  In the case of the Olympics, the committee is looking to put together a team with the best shot at medaling.  They set out to pick winners.  That’s what it’s about, winning.  Is there anything wrong with that?  I confess I’m not sure what the answer is.

Certainly I can see a parallel with my own endeavors.  Many people have told me my book is good, even excellent.  They tell me to hang in there with querying, despite the inevitability of repeated rejection.  But they cannot in honesty tell me I will make it.  Especially not when only 2% of all would-be authors ever find publication.  That’s a 98% fail rate, folks.  That has to include a lot of writers who are really good, even excellent.  They try their best, they do their best but, in the end, they go home.  They fail to reach the goal.

It’s the nature of the publishing industry.  Agents and editors are not on the lookout for the next literary masterpiece.  They examine every query with simple criteria: can I sell this?  That’s it.  Can the agent sell it to a publisher?  Can a publisher get enough sales to see a return on investment (most published books don’t see that, by the way)?  Will this be adaptable to a movie, which is where the real money is?  It’s a business decision.  Period.

That’s why a lot of sub-par hackwork makes it to the shelves.  People will buy it.  There are at least as many Fifty Shades haters as fans, but do you think E. L. James has ever lost any sleep over it?  She is, as they say, crying all the way to the bank.  Up-and-comer Veronica Roth, a young adult author in every sense of the word, is seeing her series strike gold, but she famously takes criticism hard.  She will soon learn to get over it when the residuals start to mount.  The rest of us, meanwhile, labor away, pouring our souls into what are, for most of us, labors of love that will never bear fruit.  Such is the way of all things.  Life gives no guarantees.  Being the best may not be enough.  Not when someone else meets the criteria better. 

There’s always tomorrow, of course.  Hang in there, never give up, keep striving.  You never know when the door might open for you, so be ready.  Maybe.  Then again, probably not.  We can’t all be winners.  Most of us will face defeat, despite giving it our best.  At that point the best you can hope to do is skate with grace, as Mirai did.  But the anguish will still be in our faces.  And our hearts.

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