There Are No Prodigies Here
I’m going back to the Atlantic again this week, where I found this piece highlighting 10 of the most precocious authors in literary history. While it was fun to learn more about Borges’ childhood fancies and read a hand-written poem composed by DFW when he was, like, eight years old, the article left me feeling kind of sad. What are the odds, I wondered, that in another few decades I’ll be able to look back on authors of my own generation in that same way?
That made me think about where we look for stories of young prodigies these days. And, last time I checked, our choices are now either the NBA draft or American Idol. Which really isn’t that surprising, or that big of a deal, considering that we as a general public have made the ends of those two roads both very popular and very lucrative — certainly more lucrative, on average, than any writing career (aside from that of someone like Stephen King, who, funny enough, made the Atlantic’s precociousness list).
So it’s not too difficult to understand why good looking or insanely athletic teenagers catch our eyes and, subsequently, compel us to internalize the narratives of their dream-filled upbringings (dreams which always, of course, come to fruition). But it is a little harder to understand how the producers at ESPN or NBC can remain successful, constructing so many of these identical stories that we in turn treat as new and exciting each time we encounter them.
It’s the simple fact that we fail to become conscious of the ways young icons are packaged and presented which leads me to think this has something to do with a growing cultural disconnect — at least in America — between language and real interpersonal connections. Wallace’s sloppily written grade-school poem has value beyond cuteness because it reveals the roots of his power to wield words in order to explain the relationships around him. How often will we value that skill in our heroes from here on out? Forget young people; look at politics or business. In what world besides this could a presidential candidate or major public figure gain the respect of his followers not only by appealing to them as “everyman,” but by actually promoting — as more sincere, or more natural — the ignorance that goes along with being poorly spoken or anti-intellectual?
The images of success are now replacing the language of success, so much so that the people we define as prodigies are no longer required to think independently. Unlike the young wordsmiths, who have always charted new paths by wading through the personal confusions inherent in representation and description (and maybe catching the eye of a savvy publisher along the way), our new prodigies must only broadcast their talents until a team of agents, public relations personnel and disseminators of culture is able to construct the necessary narrative of success. From that moment forward, the job is done. We identify with and root for young stars not because they bare their souls to us through craft, but because they’re so great that they don’t have to anymore.
But, in the end, why should I be sad about something that’s just a result of changes in what matters to our society at large? Maybe, as with jazz, the act of writing is just something that no longer belongs to youth culture. It feels too old.
Maybe it needs to be rescued by some yet-to-be-born writer who’s even more enigmatically witty than DFW, or even more broodingly passionate than Sylvia Plath. Maybe we can help rescue it by asking for more than a narrative of our young icons, and by elevating the prodigies who outthink us rather than outperform or outsell us. Only then may the virtuosity of creating the narratives — as opposed to living those which have been premade — return to the limelight as something to be rewarded rather than treated as quaint.