Against Talent

By EJ Levy November 7, 2012  |  MFA, Publishing, Teaching  |  no responses

Flannery O’Connor was once famously asked if writing workshops discouraged young writers, to which she is said to have replied, “Not enough of them.” The essayist Pico Iyer maintains that, “Writing can be learned, but not taught.” Beneath such skeptical pronouncements lies, it seems to me, a niggling doubt about the source of art: whether the making of literature is a craft which workshops and their proliferating brethren can enhance or whether art is born of that divinely inspired stuff—Talent.

I have come before you today to argue against Talent. I feel in relation to Talent much as, I imagine, atheist Christopher Hitchens must have felt about God. Which is to say, Talent—it seems to me—is by and large a superstition, and an unfortunate one at that; too vague a term to be meaningful, yet dangerously daunting, Talent (like other superstitions) keeps believers wary and in thrall (we clutch at the term much as we might a four-leaf clover or a rabbit’s foot). Efforts to define it almost always come to a bad end. Like definitions of obscenity in art, attempts to define talent often involve recourse to some vague claim about “knowing it when one sees it.” But what really are we seeing when we say that recognize the talented? And more importantly who (& what) is served by talk of same?

In the largely secular realm of contemporary Western art, Talent is (I’d argue) an almost unchallenged article of faith, our secular equivalent of the Calvinist notion of election, by which logic the true artist—those talented few—are our chosen ones. But as with religion, one has to wonder who and what are served by such articles of faith? To put it crudely, Who profits by belief in talent?

It is the habit of the essayist to make recourse to etymology, to go to the source to inquire into and illuminate (or argue for) the personal predilection. I’m not immune. According to Chambers Dictionary of Etymology and the OED, in the middle ages, Talent was not a gift but an “inclination, disposition, desire, or will,” a meaning borrowed from the Medieval Latin’s talentum by way of Old French, and by such a standard, the term’s a useful one.

But originally talent was a measure—a denomination of weight (used by Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans), a sum of money, a measure of wealth—and it is in this earliest meaning that the term’s suspect application to the artist is first revealed, as if each of us were a bank account, deposited, on which to draw. It was not until the 15th century that Talent came to be equated with natural aptitude or ability, but the sense of talent as treasure to spend was implicit from the start. But who calculates the balance of such Talent, and by what means? And who makes the deposit? In the New Testament (Matthew xxv. 14-30), it was a master who doled out to his servants talents, whose value they increased and returned to him. In the classroom or editorial office, it is often a professor or editor (or increasingly a marketing department) who makes such determinations, winnowing talented from un-.

Whatever the case, it’s clear that the ones who hold sway in the kingdom of Talent are the people in a position to discern it, like dowsers charging fees to find water. Who then is served by faith in talent then? Not art, not artists, but the arbiters of same.

Certainly the idea of talent holds great appeal. Like stories of striking oil or finding gold, the prospect of found treasure is every child’s dream, and many artists will, at some point in their lives, fantasize about having their genius revealed, discovered by the discerning eye of editor, patron, or critic. It’s lovely to think that art might be so simple, a sort of aesthetic Cinderella story, in which our soul is found to fit the shoe of Art.

In his wonderful essay, “Judgment,” writer Nicholas Delbanco tells a splendid Cinderella story of this sort about the novelist and critic Ford Maddox Ford and his uncanny, almost supernatural ability to discern talent at a glance.

Ford was the editor of The English Review, whose first issue in 1908 included new work by such literary luminaries as Joseph Conrad, HG Wells, Henry James and John Galsworthy, as well as a translation of Tolstoy by Constance Garnett; Ford was, according to Delbanco, “a walrus of man “ whose “his judgment was fully first rate.”

When asked about his uncanny ability to rapidly discern talent, Ford “made memorable answer…. ‘It’s easy,’ Ford averred. ‘It only takes a line.’” According to Ford’s memoir, a paragraph was all it took for him to discover DH Lawrence’s genius. After reading a few lines of a short story, “Odour of Chrysanthemums,” Ford said that he knew he had a genius on his hands. Ford saw at once that Lawrence had “’an authoritative mind. Because this man knows…you can trust him for the rest.’”

While Ford goes on to give a compelling account of what those first few lines revealed—a fascinating study in the anatomy of literary judgment—the story’s real lesson seem to be of another kind: the hero here is plainly less the writer than the editor, less Lawrence than Ford. Lawrence may be a “man who knows.” But Ford is more than that: he is man who knows when a man knows!

Which returns me to a principle qualm with that six-letter-word Talent: those who argue most forcefully for its importance are often those who have the biggest stake in being its arbiter, those in a position to dole talent out and profit thereby as in the Biblical parable, by claiming to be able to discern it.

I am not making the preposterous claim that we live in a democracy of gifts. We plainly don’t. Some of us can roller skate, others—such as myself—would consider such recreation a form of slow blunt suicide. But I am saying that the alchemy of art-making is more mysterious than any word can account for or encompass (least of all explain) and that the part of creativity that can be meaningfully discussed has got precious little to do with that bogeyman Talent. Clearly we each have aptitudes (as we each have habits, tics, obsessions), but it’s what we make of these aptitudes that makes a work of art—if we work hard and are very lucky. Michelangelo Buonarroti, that famously “talented” sculptor and painter of the Renaissance, did not speak of talent when he spoke to his student; his admonition to his pupil speaks to us still: “Work, Antonio, work, Antonio, and don’t waste time.”

Or, to quote a more contemporary, but to my mind no less authoritative, source, let me offer the words of my friend Suzi Winson, who was cast in her first Broadway show at the tender age of 18 by the great choreographer Agnes de Mille; Suzi, whom I thought wildly talented, dismissed the term entirely. “I hate it when people say [that], ‘You’re talented.’ It’s so dismissive. It means they think you didn’t have to work for this.”

But there’s another reason that I’m wary of the term: I think it distracts us dangerously from art itself, and from our own humanity, making art seem a nearly supernatural thing, rare as albinism, an aberration.

We complaisantly accept the idea that man is innately selfish, innately violent, war the engine of history, etcetera, but rare is the claim that we are innately artful, artists, homo-aestheticus. This is more than a quibble or a quaint idea: from such presumptions about our human nature follow all manner of practical things—taking war to be innate, we squander wealth on weapons; taking inequality to be natural, we allow society to become increasingly so; seeing art as the province of the talented few, we dismiss it as elite, elitist, de-fund the lot which we assume to be the province of so few.

But what if this notion of artistic talent were mistaken, askew? What if—to return to that medieval understanding of talent as inclination—the desire to make art is in fact a common one and deeply human at that? Perhaps the most human thing we do? Anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake, in her 1992 book Homo Aestheticus, argues that making art is perhaps the principal thing that distinguishes homo sapiens from other creatures, perhaps the only thing. Other species, after all, communicate, ratiocinate, remember, and regret, but only humans evidently feel the need to draw on cave walls, write poems, and their memoirs.

If it’s true that making art is our most human act, it matters plenty—for it would argue for a greater public engagement with art. In a culture that seems dangerously distracted, increasingly selfish, and self-absorbed, art—in all its forms, but especially literature—can take us out of ourselves, can seduce us into caring about the lives of others, lives often very different from our own. The reading and writing of literature is arguably a sympathetic practice, in a dangerously unsympathetic age. A practice we can’t afford to neglect.

Or to borrow the eloquence of the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, from his 1987 Nobel lecture: writing itself is an ethical exercise, strengthening the soul—as he said, “The one who writes a poem writes it above all because verse writing is an extraordinary accelerator of conscience, of thinking, of comprehending the universe.” Which would seem a worthy endeavor for all of us to engage in now.

All literature, Virginia Woolf once wrote, is autobiography. Perhaps the same might be said of the polemic—in this case, at least, it’s true. Concern for talent kept me from writing for years. I was thirty before I first tried my hand at a short story; I was well past that before I finally went to graduate school where I wrote made my first attempt at memoir. In those days, I believed fiercely in talent—that if one weren’t called to write by God or The New Yorker then one had no business at it. I waited to be called. For decades, I waited.

Once I’d arrived at graduate school, I was cautious about what I wrote, afraid what my work might reveal about me—afraid I’d be shown to be talent-less.

My faith in talent was so great that when I wrote “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” that first attempt at memoir, penned for a graduate seminar I was in—and received the professor’s damningly faint praise (a single line scribbled at the bottom of the final page saying that the essay, in its “over-preening language,” showed that I knew “that writing was about words”)—I was so discouraged that I dropped out of the program and gave up writing. Convinced that I lacked the necessary Talent.

When I returned to graduate school three years later (a different program this time), I brought the same piece to another workshop, hoping to be told what I might do to make it good or better; again the professor (a different one) dismissed it. I left the class embarrassed, not just by the piece’s poor reception, but by my own evidently glaringly lack of talent. But a fellow student told me what I’d been waiting years to be told—that the piece was good, done, urged me to send it out. So I sent the piece out and in time it was published and in time it was selected for inclusion in Best American Essays 2005.

I think now that the writer who said my prose was over-preening was right; certainly the piece, my first attempt at memoir, is flawed, but it is also trying to do what art does, to bring us into conversation with our lives, and to bring our lives into conversation with history, a thing we are in desperate need of doing as a species, now when we seem to have lost track of our common human story, when we seem to have opted for war as conversation by other means.

I tell this story as a cautionary tale then about the danger of believing too deeply or too much in Talent and the authority of others to discern it. I wasted too much time on that false god; I’ve watched too many aspiring writers do the same. When all along Michelangelo was right in his simple exhortation to the artist, to all of us: work, work, work, and don’t waste time.


EJ Levy

EJ Levy’s fiction and essays have appeared in the Paris Review, Best American EssaysThe New York Times, and The Nation, among other places, and have won many awards including a Pushcart Prize. Her anthology, Tasting Life Twice: Literary Lesbian Fiction by New American Writers, received a Lambda Literary Award. Her debut story collection, Love, In Theory (2012) won a Flannery O’Connor Award, a 2012 ForeWord Book of the Year Award (Bronze), was named a 2013 Best Indie Book of the Year by Kirkus, and received the 2014 GLCA New Writers Award (previously given to Alice Munro, Louise Erdrich, Richard Ford, and Mary Szybist, among others, for their first books). Levy’s story collection was published in French by Editions Rivages in 2015 and  received excellent reviews in Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Elle; it was also the featured book in Paris Vogue’s August 2015 issue.

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