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?
Oh my god, Louise, what a story about the ms in the recycling bin. I am blown away.
My goal in life at this point is to allow for and recognize and celebrate the extraordinary every place I can.
In my current work-in-progress, the main character divorces her husband b/c he is “unwilling to be amazed.”
The opposite of that is how I approach every book I read these days. I am completely willing to be amazed.
I recently had someone contact me via my website wanting to know if I could read part of a ms. I wasn’t sure how to respond – I’m busy and even though not yet published, I seem to get a lot of requests for my time from writers. I welcome it, but I also have to draw lines or I’d get swamped.
I almost said no, but I decided I could manage this one. I was totally blown away by what I read. It was original and unique and well-written – and in a form I’m not sure is all that marketable, but wow – I was able to respond with enthusiasm and I hope that writer will research the market but more importantly, write more material.
I’m rambling, but this is so provocative. 🙂 I saw the Joshua Bell article and put it on my own blog several weeks ago. I was fascinated and saddened that so many people passed him by.
Billie, I love the notion of being willing to be amazed. I want that on my tombstone.
And good on you for opening yourself to this new writer. I hope the encouragement you’ve shown him gives him wings.
Yes, and in telling about it I’ll show my naive ignorance: 4, 5, 6 (?) years ago on a vacation through much of New England, we stopped at a bookstore and I noticed a “local” author shelf with some mass market pbs with “woodcut”-style black and red covers depicting Sleepy-Hollow-like scenes. “How quaint,” I thought, and got a couple of them, anticipating a third-rate unpolished hack. (Well, not that bad.) Wow! The guy was every bit as good as anyone else I’d read: Sanford, Connelly, Kellerman, Patterson. It was about a month later when I was telling my local bookstore of my “discovery,” that they informed me that Archer Mayor was a very prominent and respected author.Then there was the well-known author I finally read, only to discover the book was a real stinker. What a disappointment.And, finally, who was it that was approached by an autograph hound, signed the item that was thrust upon him, then had his companion asked by the autograph seeker, “Are you anybody famous?”Ah, Dear Louise, you do incite interest, don’t you?
Interesting to know that you can be swayed by a cover, Tom! I don’t know Archer Mayor, but now have to track him down.
“Are you anybody famous?” There’s a good way to bring an author back to earth. But nothing’s ever going to top the guy at one of my first signings who said, “Just make it out to the best kisser you’ve ever known.” I didn’t get his name. More’s the shame.
Doggone it! I told that guy to quit posing as me!
The stinker I read recently I bought for the cover as well as the author; however, the only time I bought a book solely because of the cover (“to the best of my recollection”) was a couple of months ago–Mike Doogan’s debut novel set in Alaska, FALLEN ANGEL. It is excellent, in my opinion.
Now I have to go search out Doogan too! I do love Alaska-based mysteries.
Tell your alter-ego to go back to work. He’s clearly slacking off today.
Hrrmmmph! Gratitude for you. I’m outta here!
Like Billie, I’m totally blown away by the story about your neighbor. I’m sure she knows now how her work affected you.
A few years ago, my editor at a newspaper for which I review frequently told me that her brother had written a book and was looking for a publisher. She asked if I would comment on the manuscript. I agreed, a little worried that anything critical I said would harm our friendship. But when I read it, I was so touched by the book–a memoir of his wife’s battle with cancer and her death. It was simply written, like your neighbor’s book, and quite publishable.
We have a good friend who is a well-known writer, and she and her husband also own a literary press. This manuscript was the only one I’ve ever come across that I felt comfortable recommending to them. And, bless them, they loved it and bought it immediately. It was a beautiful surprise all around!
Is it me, or is Oprah starting to look like Jackie-O in that picture?! She freaks me out sometimes, the way she’s morphing into a whole other human being….
I can’t see the Jackie-O image in the picture of The-Incredible-Shrinking-Woman above, but she is a changeling, isn’t she?
And I love the story of you helping your friend’s brother get published. I’ll bet that writing that book was cathartic for him, but publishing it made him smile.
Rick Riordan, who writes award-winning PI novels and award-winning and NYT bestseller of children’s book, mentioned once that while promoting his kids’ books to elementary and middle school children one of the questions he was asked was, “Did he know any famous writers?”
It gave him pause, because, like many of us who write novels, he knew a lot of writers, and within publishing and writer circles many of them were quite famous. Perhaps Rick is himself. So he asked, “Who would a famous writer be to you?”
“Do you know J.K. Rowling?” came the reply.
To which he responded that comparing JK Rowling to other writers was like comparing George W. Bush to the average American.
I’m pretty sure that if I were to run into them on the street, I could recognize several dozen novelists, many famous, many not nearly so. But I doubt if the average American would know any of them except possibly Stephen King or maybe Janet Evanovich.
Lovely, Louise. Unsaid things tend to haunt us…maybe a good reminder for all of us. Thank you…
Elaine, you’ve never left anything unsaid! I’m sure you’re in the clear. 😉
And Mark, your Riordan story reminds me of my first mystery con: Left Coast Crime in Monterey. I was giddy with the possibility of actually getting up close and personal with the creme de la creme of crime fiction. But when the valet handling my suitcase asked me if anybody famous was going to be there and I gave him the whole run down — the stars, the guests of honor, the toast master, the big draws — he said, “Never heard of ’em” and held out his hand for the tip.
Awesome post, as usual.
In terms of unexpected genius, my most recent experience was “City of Shadows” by Ariana Franklin. It arrived on my doorstep last year with a pile of other books – I picked it up, thinking “Yuck. Historical crime fiction. Yuck.” And put it down a number of hours later, having been completely mesmerized. It was terrific, and the very best ending I’ve ever read….
Rae, you’ve done the very best thing with that discovery of unexpected genius: you’ve told other people about it. I remember the high praise you were lavishing on it last year.
Well, it worked. I went out and bought it. Now to get it to the top of the TBR stack! But what a treat to know it’s there waiting for me.
Oh, Rae! I LOVED that book too! And yes-the ending blew me away. Totally unexpected. I think I must have told ten thousand people about it as well. Get on it right now, Louise!
Louise, I remember that story and you’ve rendered it beautifully again here. Many years ago I friend suggested I read Diana Gabaldon’s first book OUTLANDER. It didn’t sound like my cup of tea but my friend insisted I read it. I fell in love with that book and her series. Last year I met her at the LATFOB and gushed. She’s the guest of honor at Bcon in Anchorage this year.
Patty, recommendations from real friends count double. I’m glad you took her up on the Gabaldon suggestion. I need to remind myself that sometimes it’s great to read outside my comfort zone.
I love every single one of your blogs, Louise. You are quite the essayist. This story about this neighbor is amazing–I can picture it as a short film.
Great post Louise.
In terms of recognizing something extraordinary, a film comes to mind. Bored and broke, I visited the dollar theaters years ago—the kind of place where you hear beer bottles rolling down the isles and you pray that what’s sticking to your shoe is just gum. I caught a 9:00 pm showing of True Romance. I didn’t know anything about the film going in, other than some guy named Quentin Tarantino wrote the script. The thing was a twisted all-American fairy tale, complete with psychotic pimps, cocaine deals, gunfights, and two crazy love-struck kids. I was blown away. It’s still one of my all time favorites.
What ever became of that Tarantino guy?
It could be a short film, Naomi. But it would be a sad one. Congratulations once again on your win! You must still be grinning from ear to ear.
And Mike, your story certainly describes “finding a diamond in all the rough.” I felt the same way about discovering the film “Dingo”with its Miles Davis soundtrack. I was transported right out of the grimy movie house where it was playing.
Louise, this is a really thought-provoking post, and the story about the manuscript in the script is just amazing . . .
I’m bothered constantly as a reviewer by the fact that there seems to be a lot of competent but . . . work out there. The writers appear to be going the right things — the plotting is OK, the storytelling isn’t bad, but there’s something missing which you often can’t put your finger on.
Finding that certain je ne sais quoi makes a reviewer’s job worthwhile. Over the past couple of years, there have been lots of books I’ve praised, but only three where I’ve raved and shouted and brow-beaten passers-by into reading the books! So if you happen to have missed me when I came past you, run, do not walk, to get your hands on Cornelia Read’s A FIELD OF DARKNESS, Nick Stone’s MR CLARINET and Tana French’s IN THE WOODS.
And don’t those gems make all the other reading efforts worthwhile? I’ve read Field of Darkness and Mr. Clarinet both so often now that I think I could quote them verbatim.
Based on this rave review from you, it looks like I ought to go find In The Woods right away.
You talk about Jasper Fforde and how hard it would have/must have been to give anyone the idea of his book. And I’m thinking “god yes, that’s how it feels to REVIEW his books”. It’s SO HARD to describe WHAT it is – you can’t really do a useful plot summary, you can’t exactly DESCRIBE the humor. I told my editor the first time around that my entire review would be “Oh, and htere’s this THING on page, 42 and on page 73 there’s such a great pun, and hte line in the first paragraph of 123…..” and she said “do that.” So I tried.But honestly? Thinking of the books at least, that have blown me away in the past what, 5 years? I don’t know if they’re works of genius but they are SO DIFFICULT at times to describe to give the “whole of” so I’m wondering if that’s part of my definition of genius, or brilliance. Fforde, and to a great extent Pratchett and Christopher Moore who leave me gasping at what they can do. Those mysteries I swoon over not just as GOOD but as unique and hugely intelligent reads and above the rest (EVERY SECRET THING, ABSENT FRIENDS and yes FIELD OF DARKNESS). I don’t think I have the same reaction to music as much but I Do have it to some extent to dance and even figure skating – I think if someone leaves me gasping that’s got to be good, huh?
I get “are you anyone famous?” a lot as i am always hanging out in the company of authors at events. I used to say “I like to think so”. Now, if I’m in a good mood, I say “no”, if not, I tend to scowl and mutter about “impolite blah blah blah”. I KNOW what they’re asking but it’s on the level of “would I know anything you’ve written?” one of the world’s STUPIDEST questions, even if you know what’s behind it.I think btw that Mayor is solid and good, but I would not put him in my top echelon. But then I can’t read Connelly, no longer read Kellerman and have never managed Patterson so don’t use me as a measure.
A work that leaves you gasping sounds like a pretty good definition of genius to me. And I do think you’re someone famous. (“Aren’t you the lead singer in that band Sad Anoraks?”)