Ambition: Are You For Or Against It?
Trick question, you idiot
People are mad online about an essay, what else is new? Today over at Hazlitt, Elisa Albert published a long, sprawling essay very aptly titled “Snarling Girl” about, around, above, and beyond the concept of “ambition.” Reader, I read it, and I enjoyed it because I have a pulse and Albert’s writing is lively.
At times like these, when we’re all just swimming in content—the gruelish honey that the worker-bee content creators spew up into text fields across millions of platforms—it’s nice to consume something spicy every once in a while. It may not be entirely pleasant, and in fact it may seem a bit loud, but hey, it’s memorable. Maybe we’ll even go back to it. Ladies and gentleschmucks, Albert has done her job. She wrote, I read.
Were there parts of it I disagreed with? Sure, but not many. Were there parts that sounded a bit grandiose? Sure, but not in any way that I haven’t wanted to sound myself from time to time because I know when I’m right and I know it does not become me to say so. Was this essay ambitious of her? Depends what you mean by that. And does it matter? Here’s one thing I’ve learned after a mere blink of an eye on this earth: yes and no is the answer to pretty much every question.
Some people will read this essay and focus on the money/career/success aspect of it and think Albert sounds harsh or even downright dismissive. Yes, she is, but of her own self, for having also thought that way, and for even presently sometimes thinking that way. I found the essay supremely relatable when it comes to criticism. There’s very little in there Albert examines that she hasn’t first passed a magnifying glass over or aimed a hand mirror at on her own person:
Oh, but get off your high horse, lady. Fucking relax. You Google yourself on the regular. Whenever you deign to log on to Twitter it’s to roll your eyes, sure, but also — BE HONEST — to type your name into the search box and see if anyone’s talking about you. You don’t even have to type your name in, BE HONEST: it’s already there, in the app’s fucking memory! Hypocrite. A nice notification or something can float you for about three minutes; a shit mention somewhere can feel like a slap in the face, even if it’s barely literate, even if it’s ignorant and hateful and so muddled it’s obviously not about you. And even as you’re skimming it, telling yourself you don’t look at this shit, telling yourself you don’t root around in this shit, you don’t play these games, you don’t care, you don’t care, you are looking at it, you are rooting around in it, you are you are you are you so are. Be honest.
She is talking to you and me and also herself. This woman has written in the first, second, and third person all at once like a fucking Mongolian throat singer and I applaud her for that. Does some of the other writing seem indulgent to you? Are you annoyed that someone let her publish a whole paragraph with three dozen one- or two-word sentences? Boo-hoo! Did we need that? Who the hell are we to say?
The essay is sort of endless. I mean literally, it doesn’t really feel like it has an end because it feels like each point between asterisks is fractal and could go off into its own thing. I don’t think that’s necessarily the result of a lack of editing or reeling-in; I think it’s very much part of the project. It makes for a not-very-neat piece, but did you really think a woman who snaps “Lean In my hairy Jewish ass” was gonna write neat? You would be wrong if you tried to say it wasn’t an “essay” and you would be right if you said it wasn’t “a certain kind of essay.”
There’s no one single crux in the piece because “ambition” is complex and means many things, some of them “good” and many of them bad. I liked this bit in particular, though:
I mean, fuck ambition, that’s where this is going. I don’t buy the idea that acting like the oppressor is a liberation, personal ambition being, in essence, see above, patriarchal.
I thought this essay was an enjoyable exploration of all its warts, as well as a striking admission that yes, all of us have wants and ideas and hairs in weird places because we’re fucking human, okay? The most salient point for me was the one that struck a certain critique-of-modernity-and-the-knowledge-economy chord that I only really hear when I start to think about What It Means To Be A Writer And Whether Writing Is A Job Or And What Good Writing Looks Like And Whether Writing Has Any Meaning At All:
I mean: ambition to what? Toward what? For what? In the service of what? Endless schmoozing and worrying and self-promotion and maniac flattery and status anxiety and name-dropping are available to all of us in any artistic medium. But the competitive edge is depressing. That thinly (or not at all) disguised desire to win. To best her or him or her or him, sell more, publish more, own the Internet, occupy more front tables, get tagged, have the most followers, be loudest, assume some throne. Is it because we want to believe that we are in charge of our destiny, and that if “things” aren’t “happening” for us, we are failing to, like, “manifest”? Or is it because we are misguided enough to think that external validation is what counts? Or is it because of some core narcissistic injury, some failure of love we carry around like a latent virus?
We hate each other so much for wanting to speak up. Think about it: Albert is hating on us for hating on each other for hating on ourselves for hating on her. It’s a vicious circle and she wants no part of it, except that guess what, she lives in it right alongside us. It is clear that Albert wants us all to transcend ambition altogether and just plant peonies, and it is also clear she knows that’s just too reductive. She already knows your critiques and yet she’s still gonna read them anyway. It’s a real Rorschach inkblot of an essay. What do you see?