Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Essay and the Book

I remember reading Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" essay and thinking it was brilliant - but then reading the book of the same name realised that he was stretching a good idea, a little too far, and even, that his examples weren't actually that good at proving his thesis. The sense that however readable, and however original his ideas, he's better in small doses than large ones remains. His recent essay about "genius" seemed particularly curious. As interesting as ever, he was making the case that the idea of genius being something that doesn't need working at may well be a lie - that there are two types of artist, the apparent prodigy and the grafter, and that its the latter who is the experimentalist (trying to find out what works by incremental means) seemed curiously wrong-headed. I'm on a train so can't quite find the links without some difficulty - but he's everywhere at the moment with his new book "Outliers". Literary genius is a particularly difficult subject - as literary "success" seems a totally different thing. I guess we can all accept Shakespeare as a genius, but below that level, where do we rate our writers? Being published and winning prizes in this culture doesn't seem to equate to genius, whether its taken ten years to write a novel or ten days. Genius if it has any meaning has to be applied sparingly, and, I would think, to the unique, the unrepeatable, the uncloneable. A Coetzee, or a Carey, or a Rushdie for instance would seem to fall far short, and I'm not sure they'd like the label anyway. And where to put a Pound, when faced with an Eliot? A Lowell and a Bishop? An Amis K. and Amis M.? Yet if we only allow our innovators to be geniuses we have only room for a flawed Joyce, and less room for a (differently) flawed Fitzgerald.

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