Do we recognize genius when we see it?
Earlier this year, the world-renowned classical violinist Joshua Bell put on a baseball cap and played a 43-minute free concert in a Metro Station in Washington D.C. Few rush hour commuters stopped to listen. Most didn’t even remember a musician in the station that day. He collected a total of $32.17, if you don’t count the $20 from the woman who recognized him from a concert at the Library of Congress three weeks earlier.
This link will take you to the Washington Post story about the musical experiment, along with some fascinating video and an audio download of the entire concert.
Clearly, the answer to the question above is, “not many of us.”
For the record, Bruce Springsteen pulled a similar stunt almost twenty years ago, stopping to sing The River with a street musician in Copenhagen. The video’s here. He had a better response from the crowd, and they were polite enough not to mob him. But I don’t know if that says more about Springsteen or about the Danes.
Anyway, this all got me thinking about the rigors of publishing, as well. Whether we’re agents or editors, members of award judging panels, reviewers, or readers, do we recognize great writing when we see it?
Pity the poor agent. Hundreds of query letters come in each week. If they’re done professionally, they have, at most, one paragraph of description of the work on offer. They might have a few sample pages, but that’s only if your agency accepts that kind of thing in an initial query. And if it’s not professionally done, the agent might be reading cat scratches made with a No. 3 pencil or a red crayon.
After hours of flinging sound-alike, seen-that-before plots and characters onto the slush pyre, do agents still have the openness of spirit to recognize gold when it crosses their desk?
What must those agents have first thought of Jasper Fforde’s submission? “Well, it’s all done tongue-in-cheek, with lots of plays on words and literary references, and it’s kind of sci-fi … but more like a fairy tale. And there’s a bit of a mystery to it.” And a bit of genius too, I think.
For the most part, editors at least can start with the summary and praise from an agent they trust. The manuscript was at least good enough to get an agent’s attention. That doesn’t mean that an editor will agree, but it’s a good start. What then? Do they wait for their heart to beat faster? Do they cock an ear to hear a voice in the writing that is as clear and sweet as a bell ringing?
Judges on awards panels try to be objective in their reading, just like the editor or agent would be. But does that mean they would have judged Joshua Bell relative to all the other musicians in the Metro? Or relative to the best music they’d ever heard?
Reviewers try to be objective, too, although personal preferences and bias figure in sometimes. All in all, I think they’re listening for that perfect pitch, that single note that says "this is something special."
As readers, we have more options. We can take the word of a trusted bookseller or friend. We can read blurbs or reviews or chat list recommendations. Some of us are swayed by awards. Or by advertising. Or by the first sentence. Others wait until Oprah has blessed it.
But without those signposts of previous accolades, would we know great writing if we came across it in an unusual place?
Last Fall, I commented on one of Patty Smiley’s Naked Author blogs, and fessed up to having stolen somebody’s manuscript out of the dumpster. My next door neighbor, a software engineer, had placed her recycling bin right next to mine. And there, on the top, was a complete, rubber-banded manuscript. I couldn’t help myself. I grabbed it, stuffed it under my sweatshirt and hotfooted it back upstairs.
Now let’s be honest about the motivations here. I couldn’t stand the woman. She had a pinched and sour face, and looked like the Wicked Witch of the West as she pedaled off to work in the morning. She took great pleasure in attending planning commission meetings to protest any additions or improvements our neighbors wanted to make to their houses. She called the cops every time I worked on the race car, saying that the smell of the idling engine gave her a migraine.
I wanted to read her manuscript to take small green-toad pleasure in how bad it was. I didn’t have an open mind. I didn’t wish her well.
Upstairs, I slipped off the rubber bands.
It was a memoir – the saddest story I’ve ever read – of three generations of women in her family dying of breast cancer. She used simple language to express the deepest of emotions. She touched the most primal and vulnerable part of me. And she made sense of a senseless world.
It ended with the news of her own illness.
She died last year and I never had the guts to tell her how much her writing had meant to me.
Maybe — even without an open heart — we can find the glint of genius in unlikely places. I’ve learned my lesson. I now approach all my reading with an open mind. And I give every street musician a little money.
How about all you readers and reviewers and agents and editors and judges out there? Have you recognized something extraordinary where you didn’t expect to find it?