In The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell examines the popular tradition of the young genius:
Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth. Orson Welles made his masterpiece, “Citizen Kane,” at twenty-five. Mozart wrote his breakthrough Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-Flat-Major at the age of twenty-one. In some creative forms, like lyric poetry, the importance of precocity has hardened into an iron law. How old was T. S. Eliot when he wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (“I grow old . . . I grow old”)? Twenty-three. “Poets peak young,” the creativity researcher James Kaufman maintains.
But studies have shown that this is simply not true, not true for lyric poetry, not true for music or literature. And Gladwell’s leading example is Dallas’ own Ben Fountain, whose terrific short story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, came out in 2006.
But before you take heart — you, in your cubicle, knowing that your brilliance at online poker will be recognized at any moment — it’s plain that as much as Fountain’s success is evidence that inspiration can strike later rather than earlier, it’s testimony to his incredible persistence:
He quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least thirty rejections. The novel that he put away in a drawer took him four years. The dark period lasted for the entire second half of the nineteen-nineties. His breakthrough with “Brief Encounters” came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The “young” writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.
Oh yes, and there was that little matter of writing four short stories about Haiti. He went there some 30 times. That’s because younger genius’ breakthroughs are “conceptual” — the brilliant flash — while older artists are “experimental,” they work in a more tentative and cumulative fashion. it also helps to have an understanding patron — especially a spouse who supports the artist while he struggles to find his voice.
And, just by the way, the New Yorker story is a classic Gladwell piece, wonderful to read.
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