Malcolm Gladwell Interviewed by Blake Eskin

New Yorker, October 20, 2008

Blake Eskin: Malcolm, thanks for joining me.

Malcolm Gladwell: Iím delighted to be here.

BE: So you start your piece with the example of this writer named Ben Fountain. Heís written a short story collection thatís been reviewed very well, and won awards and basically took the literary world by storm. But that was after almost two decades of rejection.

MG: His story at first blush seems like that story youíve heard a zillion times about the talent from the provinces who bursts on the scene; only he doesnít burst on the scene, he takes twenty years. I mean heís forty-eight when his first book comes out and heís been sitting at his kitchen table writing for, yeah, eighteen years.

BE: Now how did he get to spend all that time doing that?

MG: Because he happened to have a very wonderful wife, who was a partner at a law firm and who believed in him.

BE: Ben Fountain was also a lawyer.

MG: Yeah, itís actually a lovely story. He and his wife meet in law school and they both become associates in downtown Dallas law firms, and he finally has enough in his late twenties and decides heíd like to quit. And he becomes the house husband. He raises the kids, and she goes off to work, and he stays at home and when the kids are in daycare and then later in school, he writes. And this goes on for eighteen years.

BE: This is an arrangement they were okay with.

MG: Yeah, I mean one of the lovely things is how much his genius was a product of love, which is the same lesson one draws from Cezanne. People always rag on Louis-Auguste Cezanne...

BE: He was a banker?

MG: He was a banker, and he doesnít understand his sonís art, he disapproves of his son. [But] he does pay the bills for thirty years. And thatís the story of the Fountains as well, you know, he has, his partner, this woman who would stand by him as he figured out the difficult task of how to write a short story. Thatís one of the themes of the piece, is how for that kind of creative mind you need to have a kind of support team around you to be able to flourish. Cezanne is the kind of prototypical example of the late bloomer. Remember, you know, Cezanne does not become Cezanne, this famous painter, until heís well into his fifties.

BE: Right, so I mean with late bloomers, itís not so much about taking a long time to get noticed; for a lot of them itís about taking a long time to get good, to realize their genius.

MG: Yeah. You know I was inspired to write this piece by the work of this really wonderful economist named David Galenson who wrote a book called Old Masters and Young Geniuses a couple years ago at the University of Chicago. And he makes this distinction between these two, what he calls the conceptual innovator, which is the Picasso type, who is the precocious genius, and what he calls the experimental innovator, which is Cezanne. And by definition he says the experimental innovator is someone whoís going to take a long time to reach their peak because theyíre learning through experimentation, through a kind of time-consuming, painstaking process of trial and error and starting and stopping and research and tearing their hair out and, you know, thatís how they learn, thatís how they develop.

BE: Now you also talked about his research on lyric poets, the idea being, I guess the fantasy or the myth is that lyric poetry is the poetry of the young and it comes out of youth, but in fact he found that wasnít the case at all.

MG: No, when you do, he does this thing where, he points out that every major expert on creativity who has spoken about lyric poetry has said, as a matter of fact, that of course lyric poets are people who peak young, right, thatís...our notion is that thatís a kind of creative pursuit which lends itself to the young, supple, precocious mind. And so, Galenson says, all right, and so he does a thing that an economist would do, is he selects the forty-seven major poetry anthologies and he simply counts, you know, what are the poems that appear most frequently in those anthologies. In other words, itís like polling all the literary experts about what they think belongs in the canon. What he discovers is thereís eleven poems that appear the most. And then he says okay, well [at] what age were each of those poems written? And what he discovers is roughly half are written by poets at the very beginning of their careers, so Prufrock is written when Eliot is...

BE: While Eliotís in his twenties.

MG: Eliot is twenty-three. But a good half of them are written when the poets are in their forties and fifties. You know the great Frost poems, the Wallace Stevens poems, these are the poems of mature, middle-aged artists.

BE: Whereas the conceptual person is more of what youíd call the natural, you know, with Picasso as a painter, you also invoke Jonathan Safran Foer as a counterpoint to Ben Fountain.

MG: Yeah these people who kind of burst on the scene fully formed. And Galenson would say itís because what they do, is they have a kind of revolutionary idea, an idea so distinct and clear that for them the creative task is merely the execution of that notion. He points out that thereís a, when you look at the universe of creative geniuses, itís not a normal distribution, itís bimodal. Thereís a clump who peak really young and thereís a clump who peak pretty old.

BE: So what does a Picasso make of a Cezanne? What does a Jonathan Safran Foer make of a Ben Fountain?

MG: Yeah, itís hard for them to understand. After I met with Ben Fountain I went to see Jonathan Safran Foer because he is the opposite, right? He is the...he writes Everything is Illuminated when heís nineteen years old and three months. And I asked him, I kind of described Ben Fountain to him and said, can you imagine working that way, and it wasnít that he couldnít describe it, itís that he didnít even know that species of creativity existed. Which is not to say anything bad about Jonathan Safran Foer, itís just that it is impossible for one of those kinds of genius, I think, to understand the other kind of genius. I donít think Picasso understood Cezanne, I donít Cezanne could even for a moment imagine what it was like to be Picasso. So these two models are worlds apart.

BE: Is there anyone you came across whoís sort of both, the prodigy who then becomes the late bloomer?

MG: Well, you know whoís interesting along these lines are people like Roth.

BE: Philip Roth.

MG: Yeah. You could argue, I suppose, and Iím not a Roth expert, that what Roth is, he turns himself from Picasso into Cezanne. Because he has this extraordinary second career. You could cut his career in half, right, and if he called himself another name, you know, after the age of forty-five, he would be revered as well. So itís like heís, thatís what makes him so extraordinary, I suppose, is that he represents both extremes. And, you know, along the same lines as what we were just talking about, would the young Roth understand the old Roth, and does the old Roth in any way still understand the young Roth? Iím not sure he does. I mean, to me. Maybe he feels like two very different artists at these stages in his life.

BE: The fields weíre talking aboutóthe novel, or short story, paintingóthese are all creative pursuits in the arts. Are there fields where it isnít bimodal, as you say: sports, chess, math?

MG: There are. But there the bias is towards the late blooming and not the precociousness. So the research into expertise says that itís very difficult to be an expert in anything unless youíve had roughly ten thousand hours of preparation, which is ten years of preparation. So even Mozart who we think of as the poster child for precociousness does not create a truly memorable work until heís been composing for ten years.

BE: I want to ask you a little bit more about whatís the popular myth of the prodigy, whatís the popular myth of the late bloomer, and, in your sort of investigation of this, how does that fall apart?

MG: Well, we have a certain number of myths about prodigies, and one of them is that virtually everyone who is a mature genius began as a prodigy. Thatís actually false. If you think about this in musical terms, when we celebrate a musical prodigy what we are celebrating is mimicry, right? The eight year old who plays at Carnagie Hall is wondrous to our ears because theyíre an eight year old who can sound like an adult. When it comes time...what we celebrate in an adult musician is something entirely different. You cannot be a world class musician simply by sounding adult. You must sound like yourself, right? You must have an individual style. And lots of, you know, one of the reasons why so many people who begin as prodigies never make it as adultsóand by the way most prodigies in music do not make the transition to successful adult musicianshipóis that they have to make this transition from mimicry to originality. And thatís really hard to do.

BE: So does this research on late bloomers and your encounter with Ben Fountain and reading about this, does this, how does this throw into question the whole idea of genius for you?

MG: Well, it certainly says that we need to expand our definition of what greatness is and that we need to be patient. Every pushy parent out there is of the belief that their child must manifest some extraordinary talent at eleven or twelve or thirteen or itís too late.

BE: And if they donít theyíre not getting into school, and if theyíre not getting into school theyíre going to be worthless in life.

MG: That itís over at twenty-two if all the cards havenít been dealt in exactly the right way. You know this is a reminder, itís not over at twenty-two, itís not even over at forty-two. Right? At forty-two Ben Fountain wasnít writing great short stories. At forty-eight he produces something that will be remembered for a hundred years. I find that such a wonderfully liberating thought about the many different manifestations of creativity.