Hermione Lee’s marvelous biography of Virginia Woolf tells us that Woolf applied the same clear-eyed and unstinting analysis to her father, Leslie Stephen, that she did to most of her subjects, subjects that tended to be Victorian, domestic, and preoccupied with the mind. On her father, the upshot, for Woolf, was this: “Stephen’s crucial weakness, she thought, was that he allowed himself to behave like a genius (badly, that is), whereas he was, as he once told her, ‘only a good second class mind.’”
First, there’s the question of acting like a genius. Do we let geniuses get away with saying and doing outrageous things while expecting people of average or below-average intelligence to know better? Sure. Ovid, Picasso, Einstein: gossip has it that they couldn’t be bothered with social niceties, say, or respect for authority, focused as they were on greater contributions for which we would remain grateful long after annoyance at their tardiness, soup-slurping, womanizing or political insouciance had faded. But even in this regard, geniuses don’t submit meekly to generalizations: I can think of an equal number of geniuses whose lives were or are meekly conventional, even while their minds travel wildly, many geniuses with a reputation for politeness. And even geniuses who flout etiquette don’t do so every minute—when would they get anything else done?
I was much more interested in the sad while possibly oddly freeing admission that Stephen made of the grade he gave himself, one that his daughter possibly agreed with, one that she superceded. Stephen may have been tortured by his own intellectual or imaginative shortcomings, but this didn’t stop him from extruding a healthy stack of written work.
Self-assessment is a double-edged sword for a writer: there is no objective measure of our work’s worth. So we’re dependent first on what we think of our writing and, next, on what others think. Even non-genius writers, like me, have moments of creative delirium that resemble a feeling of genius, however evanescent. And most writers, even geniuses, have stretches when they feel like worthless frauds. At least geniuses have the encouragement of their inarguable brilliance to keep them going through those desolate times, right? But most writers are not, by our own estimation or that of others, geniuses. Why, then, we ask ourselves, why do we keep on writing?
I recall a writer friend talking about his girlfriend, a decorated graduate of the country’s most prestigious creative writing program and, in his estimation, a very talented writer. But she was wasting herself, he said, on depression. “She’s not writing!” he spat, outraged at her lying around the apartment, spending her “copious free time,” as it’s usually called, adopting companionably maladjusted dogs.
“Well,” said the rest of us, three other writers wondering who would ever have the time and interest to choose to read our books instead of, say, Ovid’s or Virginia Woolf’s, “the world doesn’t need any more books.”
“That’s not the point!” her now ex-boyfriend railed. “She’s an individual with potential she’s wasting. A life—wasted.” We shrugged.
Malcolm Gladwell recently postulated, in The New Yorker, that we should redefine our conception of “genius” so that it is no longer contingent on precocity. His essay took as its central case a writer, Ben Fountain, whose first book was published to considerable critical acclaim when he was 48. Fountain had worked on it for twenty years or something, and each story had been rejected some thirty times before it was published, but then finally, he had a breakthrough. Gladwell’s counterpoint: Jonathon Safran Foer, who wrote his first novel in three weeks when he was in his early twenties, and became an overnight literary sensation. Foer’s the one people refer to as a genius, but Gladwell calls Fountain a “late bloomer,” a much more inclusive model of genius that appears to include someone who, at any stage of life, attains an appreciable level of success in a creative endeavor.
This model is very reassuring to those of us who will go through most of our lives struggling to create despite our “good second class minds.” I remember reading, in my thirties, about how “young writers” are, conventionally, those under forty, whereas “young” musicians or filmmakers are much younger. It takes much longer, said the writer of that article, to accumulate the life experience, the wisdom, that makes a good writer than it does to get the chops to front a band. I clung desperately to that wisdom over the ten years it took to write my first novel, years spent learning how to structure a book, how to penetrate my characters, matters on which Foer was, it seems, a savant. I may be a late bloomer. Or—though this is not headline news—I may simply not be a genius.
But, despite my lack of genius, I get letters every week from people who love my book—smart, even discerning, people, to all appearances. My editors and publishers, too, have suggested to me strongly, in person, that they love my book. Even I think it’s quite readable and not unintelligent, apart from its filling a certain gap in literature concerning south Indian Brahmin widows of a hundred years ago with homosexual servants-turned-best-friends and brilliant sons-turned-entrepreneurs.
If we think in terms of contributions to human knowledge and enjoyment, there may be many ways in which non-geniuses, in part because they are more common, may have contributed more. And there’s also that much speculated upon and unsavory connection between genius and instability. Geniuses may be tortured in ways that prevent them from realizing their potential. Suicide, for example, is a great impediment to literary output. Statistical associations are debatable: geniuses may be no more prone to suicide than the rest of us; their deaths may just have a greater chance of making the papers since they are taken to signal a greater loss than the death of non-geniuses. (Leslie Stephen didn’t “behave like a genius” in this regard, unlike his daughter.)
I am not, in my opinion, producing Great Works, but then I am 1. modest and 2. very selective about applying that term. Jonathon Safran Foer may be a genius, but he is not, in my evidently limited opinion, producing Great Works either. I think Russell Banks and Edward P. Jones have produced one Great Work apiece, though they did so relatively late in life, so they may qualify as geniuses in Gladwell’s book, though they may or may not in anyone else’s. (Oh, wait, Jones got the MacArthur, aka “Genius,” Fellowship, so that answers that question.) I think Gladwell himself may be a genius, actually. W. Somerset Maugham, whose books I love, described himself in his autobiography as standing “in the very first row of the second-raters.” The irony is clear, though whether this was in his own opinion or those of others is less so. I think Salman Rushdie is a genius even if some of his books are second-rate. And he is willing to flout social convention, so that’s further proof. But he hasn’t yet gotten a Genius Fellowship, and neither has Rebecca Solnit, who certainly should, in my opinion, be awarded one, discounting her excellent table manners. One of my friends referred to my novel as a Great Work, but he’s just a very sweet person who reads a lot of books, no one who’s going to be asked to write for The New Yorker.
Anyway, I’m increasingly convinced that perhaps my friend the writer with the would-be-writer girlfriend was right: perhaps the point is not to be a genius but just to write, even if the best you can do is to crowd into the rearmost rows of the second-raters, where you raise your opera glasses and crane your neck for a glimpse of genius, others’ or your own.
Virginia Woolf painting by Roger Fry. Self Portrait by Pablo Picasso. Image from Rent Girl illustrations by Laurenn McCubbin.