Posted by: ritagone | January 25, 2017

Okay, So I’m Not a Genius!!

Things comescreen-shot-2011-01-24-at-2-36-58-pm 1469593-maxwell-perkins-quote-the-book-belongs-to-the-authorto you sometimes – epiphanies lookhomewardangel– from the strangest places and in the weirdest ways.

photo_16696_1         I had always wondered, for example, in the way that people who read a lot probably do, why I haven’t had it in me to write a great novel, a classic, something that would melt hearts and last for decades and centuries, a “War and Peace,” a “Great Expectations,” a wonderful work of fiction to live forever. (Okay, I admit that this is part fantasy, but this is truly what readers of great fiction think about. Don’t deny it.)

Yes, people like me who studied literature in college and who read a lot of fiction have this fantasy, you can be sure, even if it’s not often voiced. Deep down we fancy ourselves potentially part of the great line of authors from all over the world whose names are household words, whose paragraphs and titles are the stuff of classrooms and doctoral theses.

And then recently I watched an HBO movie called “Genius,” about Maxwell Perkins, who was an editor at Charles Scribners Publishing Company in New York City in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s and ‘40’s, and who shepherded the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, among many others. The movie focused mainly on his tumultuous relationship with Wolfe, who brought the manuscript of “Look Homeward, Angel” to Perkins in raw, unedited form, far too long (over 5,000 pages before editing) and rambling, and who then spent years paring and cutting and transforming it into what has truly become a great American classic. All this time Wolfe became a part of the Perkins female household: five daughters and a wife, who listened to Wolfe wax eloquent about life and himself as if he were a god.

This is not discovering a cure for cancer. It’s not on a level with anything of global significance. I share it with you because it had an impact on my life, and that’s what this blog is all about, I guess. But isn’t it interesting that you can live over seven decades, as I have now done, and finally discover something so seemingly relevant to yourself that should have been apparent years ago yet wasn’t? I always fancied myself capable – given the right set of circumstances (although I never quite put my finger on what those actual circumstances where, mind you!) – of making a significant contribution to Western literature. But life got in the way: school, travel, marriage, children, my husband’s career, you know, life in all its glory.

Now I realize, after watching “Genius” and reading A. Scott Berg’s book, Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius upon which the movie is based, that perhaps the missing ingredient is that I’m not a lunatic. Or an alcoholic. Or a raving egomaniac. Fitzgerald certainly was. So too was Hemingway. And Wolfe outshone them both when it came to outstripping the normal bounds of behavior and alcohol consumption.

Now, I’m not saying that a mere mortal can’t or hasn’t written a great novel, a classic, but I must admit that I’m hard-pressed to think of one. Help me out here. Every great novel, every work of fiction that burns into the heart and soul of readers of every age in every culture, is written by someone who knows of madness and mayhem. If you can think of an exception, let me know; I’m really curious to hear who fits this category: a great writer of a great book, who led a normal life. A clearly normal person. Start your list. I’m waiting to hear from you.

I’m posing this as a theoretical question that I’d like you, dear readers, to ponder with me and help answer: are the great fictional writings of all time written by (mostly) men who are damaged souls, or can you be a fairly normal person of normal appetites and still create something enduring in literature?

What do you think?




  1. How about C.S. Lewis?

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