Malcolm Gladwell Interviewed by Blake Eskin
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
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
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
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
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
BE: Is there anyone you
came across whoís sort of both, the prodigy who then becomes the late
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.