You little genius

by Maria on July 19, 2006

There are good reasons why I haven’t bought Wired Magazine in about five years. The whole bleeding edge thing frayed a bit with the dot com crash. And that hyperactive, slightly autistic gadget-boy take on the world (a planet which only spanned the west coast of the US and the high tech bits of Asia) just started to seem ever so recursive. But today, in honour of being on the west coast and much delayed on a flight from L.A back to Europe, I cracked and bought the magazine.

Wired now has fashion tips for how to wear your bluetooth, a rather pointless feature on ‘Earth 2.0’, advertisements for Gilette (because the best a man can get is a whopping five blades), and far more car ads than I remember – most of them for Japanese vehicles that improbably combine performance, high tech fuel efficiency, and the nodding respect of other techies. So ‘Wired Man’ is slightly more environmentally aware than he used to be, but just as insecure and rather implausibly hirsute.

Wired also has a feature about a rather disgruntled economist, David Galenson. Galenson – only slightly self-interestedly – has a theory that there are two kinds of genius; boy wonders and plodders. Well, he actually calls them conceptualists (they paint their masterpieces before they’re 30) and experimentalists (late bloomers who actually turn out to have have dual-peaked careers). The theory uses price comparisons for work by twentieth century American artists to show that the boy wonders (Frank Stella, Jasper Johns) burn out early or only have one big idea while the plodders (Rothko, Pollock) develop and refine their ideas and techniques over a lifetime.

I have a lot of sympathy for Galenson. Thirty-something strivers unfavourably compare themselves with the Larrys and Sergeys, and secretly nurse the fantasy that their own time will come. But – and this may be due to Wired’s skewed demographic or the ingrained sexism of the art market – it is striking that women really don’t feature. One literary example is mentioned (Sylvia Plath) but that’s it.

Which strikes me as odd. I’ve long believed that, patriarchy being what it is, many women writers only come into their own late in life (perhaps I’m the one nurturing a fantasy). But it makes sense; women are often far less convinced of their own genius, for reasons biological and social, and spend a large chunk of their most productive years producing other humans. But later, when the opportunity of time is presented, the performance anxiety of youth has gone, and a life well and fully lived provides the material and insight to put pen to paper, off they go.

The only thing is, I suddenly can’t think of a single example. Any thoughts? Or does this intuition only appeal because it’s comforting?



ed 07.19.06 at 9:57 pm

With genius, it requires two to tango. The society must recognize the genius and have some use for it.

An obvious example is what if Einstein lived in prehistoric times. He might have walked around wondering what the sun was made of, but he would have spent most of his time hunting and gathering. Even among civilized societies, an Einstein could have lived among the 9th century Maya, when their civilization was falling apart, and we would have been none the wiser.

I think the careers of the “great” artists, scientists, etc. can be explained more by chance and by changes in the society they lived. Pollack and Rothko flourished when they could find people to buy their paintings. They could have easily lived in a time or place where it would have never occured to them to paint at all. Its not really more complicated than that.


Rasselas 07.19.06 at 10:04 pm

Those are five text-messaging blades of Akihabara bladetastic WiFi-enabled bladeifying venture capital bladeaction, thanks.


Rasselas 07.19.06 at 10:13 pm

Also, didn’t Karen Blixen start writing, or at least publishing, fairly late?


Richard 07.19.06 at 10:25 pm

I’m not sure how early Iris Murdoch started, but she kept going a long time. Ditto Ursula leGuin, Margaret Mead, George Eliot. On the lighter-weight end of things, both Helen Fielding and J K Rowling first found success well into their 30s (if not 40s)… although again, I’m not sure how old Fielding was when she started.

Writers seem a rather different breed from painters or sculptors, to me.


cw 07.19.06 at 10:50 pm

Annie Proulx. Not sure that’s how to spell it. Harriet Doerr (stones for ibarrra). Doris Lessing, in a way. And maybe the woman who wrote the Stone Diaries.


melissa spore 07.19.06 at 10:57 pm

Edward Tufte, the fellow who wrote Visual Explanations, first took Galenson apart in 2004. A chapter of his latest book, Beautiful Evidence, discusses Galenson’s misuse of language, & cherry-picking of data. Earlier versions are posted in the Ask ET forum on his website.

It’s difficult to work gender into the discussion once Tufte demonstrates the baselessness of Galenson’s argument.


Yarrow 07.19.06 at 11:01 pm

Grandma Moses


lw 07.19.06 at 11:39 pm

Barbara McClintock, Barbara Tuchman, Elaine Pagels.


blah 07.20.06 at 12:12 am

Penelope Fitzgerald began her literary career at the age of 60. Her final novel, Blue Flower, is perhaps her greatest work, which she published at the age of 80.


tom s. 07.20.06 at 12:12 am

Carol Shields


antirealist 07.20.06 at 12:52 am

Penelope Fitzgerald began her literary career at the age of 60
+1, as I believe the cool kids say. Please let us not forget the wonderful “The Beginning Of Spring”.

Also, Mary Wesley.


lorenz 07.20.06 at 2:02 am

Alice Munro.


Andrew Brown 07.20.06 at 4:08 am

Mary Midgley.

But not, I think, Helen Fielding, who had been working as a fairly successful feature writer for ten years at least before she started BJ as a column in the Independent when she was in her mid thirties. It so obviously described the poeple in the office then that I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to read it.


Bill Gardner 07.20.06 at 7:06 am

I thought the story was that Barbara McClintock did great work from the start. It just took a long time for anyone to give her a real job.


SamChevre 07.20.06 at 8:57 am

Willa Cather started writing young, but her best work was done after she was 40.

By the way, I wonder which category Kipling would go in? His best-known stories were written, and his name made, when he was in his 20’s–but some of his best work was done much later (On the Gate, for example).


Maynard Handley 07.20.06 at 1:24 pm

It’s rather hard to take seriously someone whining about sexism who just earlier penned the sentence “So ‘Wired Man’ is slightly more environmentally aware than he used to be, but just as insecure and rather **implausibly** hirsute.”


Jon H 07.20.06 at 4:00 pm

ed writes: “An obvious example is what if Einstein lived in prehistoric times. He might have walked around wondering what the sun was made of, but he would have spent most of his time hunting and gathering. ”

I figure he’d have been some kind of religious figure. His questioning mind may not have come up with terribly scientific explanations for things, instead coming up with supernatural explanations.


Helen 07.20.06 at 7:50 pm

Olga Masters, the Australian novelist, started when she was in her 50s after raising children.

(It’s rather hard to take seriously someone describing a topic about gender differences in age of first publishing success as “whining about sexism”. I guess you’d describe the post above as “whining about book titles”?)


Eugene 07.20.06 at 10:13 pm

How about Helen Hooven Santmyer, who published her …And Ladies of the Club in 1984 at age 88?


Cthomas 07.21.06 at 10:22 am

I was just reading an essay by Cynthia Ozick, in which she recalls being an unrecognized author as late as her mid-’30s.


Laurie Paul 07.21.06 at 11:23 am

Jane Austen wasn’t a plodder, she was an unrecognized girl wonder who died before the age of 40. I’m not sure how to classify Emily Dickinson and Charlotte Bronte, but clearly they were geniuses.


Laurie Paul 07.21.06 at 11:25 am

actually, looking back at your post, Austen doesn’t fit your criteria for a boy/girl wonder either, since she had more than one big idea.


anthony 07.21.06 at 1:45 pm

marylin robinson, maybe


loonunit 07.21.06 at 2:17 pm

harper lee for a girl wonder? where do we put shirley jackson?

Comments on this entry are closed.