Wednesday, January 26, 2011

'Moderate giftedness': Curse or menace?

By Barry Johnson

My old colleague at The Oregonian, Marty Hughley, who now sits in the theater critic chair, posed the following question to his Facebook friends:
True or False:
"Moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that. A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but world's champions." - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
This is from Vonnegut's minor novel, Bluebeard, and I suspect that Vonnegut himself would vote "false." It's more the lament of a "moderately gifted" person than a serious social analysis, and that is the main character's self-description in the novel.  (Vonnegut could do social analysis: he studied and abandoned anthropology at the University of Chicago, though he was awarded an M.A. long after he'd left for his novel, Cat's Cradle.) Vonnegut's politics were far from elitist.

Still, I think the position probably has some support, simply because so many of us feel moderately gifted, especially when it comes to the arts. We'll never play like Lang-Lang or write like David Foster Wallace (or Kurt Vonnegut), we couldn't possibly distinguish ourselves as photographers or painters, we just don't have the right DNA to be a famous dancer. Believe me, I get it.

In the comment thread for Marty's question, another theme suggested itself -- the best writers don't rise to the top, really. The best self-promoters do. I get that one, too. So, let's see: I couldn't possibly write as well as Peter Carey (I'm reading Parrot and Olivier in America now and loving it), and even if I could, I'd be aced out by some aggressive mediocrity with better connections than I have.

But I don't want to get into all that. I want to argue against the very idea of categories of this sort.

We can't help the whole categorizing thing. We're hard-wired to recognize patterns and minute changes to the patterns. And then rank what we find: The best berry patch, the second best fishing spot, the third best place to cool off on a hot day (if the first two are occupied by disagreeable or dangerous people). We do the same thing with people. Ranking starts very early. When I was a kid, it was "popular," "smart" and "athletic." Somehow athletic and popular tended to go together.  And the differences in rankings of various types tend to become our "identity."

But when it comes to writing, at least, I want to argue the anti-elitist position, very briefly. And it comes down to this: At any given moment just about all of us are capable of thinking and conveying through language a partial description of the universe that is useful to the rest of us. And in that moment WE are the champions, at least for those who read or hear us. And conversely, Kurt Vonnegut wrote Bluebeard, which I find mildly amusing but not very useful -- not the work of a champion at all, though the rank-maker in me, would grade him toward the top for Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat's Cradle and The Sirens of Titan.

In short, minute by minute, we are processing, and Vonnegut may loom large at one moment and Hughley may loom large the next. I happen to think very highly of the art critic Adam Gopnik, but most of the time I consider things that he doesn't, and then I have to find other resources. As much as  we think of the world as entirely networked and glued to the activities of a few hundred celebrities (including writers), our reality is different. I'll spend a lot more time today considering a question by Marty than thinking about the course of Apple without Steven Jobs or the Oscar odds of Natalie Portman. If you're reading this, you probably will, too!

Anti-elitist? Sure. This is the way a democratic process should work: We gather the best ideas from wherever they arise, test them, argue about them, improve them, reach an agreement about them, put them into practice and repeat. We shouldn't go to the same "experts" or "champions" all the time, because frankly they don't have the best ideas all the time. And none of their ideas are so good that they can't be improved. Democracy is a method for getting better answers -- and it happens to have some beneficial side-effects. That's what makes the decline of our own democracy so alarming.

In the matter of writing, the past couple of decades has proven my point. The internet has unleashed the writing of tens of millions of humans whom we never would have encountered in the past. Some of them are incredibly useful writers to me. I would speculate that most of them have something to say to someone. Some are my own champions, I suppose.

Here are the next two paragraphs of Bluebeard:
"The entire planet can get along nicely now with maybe a dozen champion performers in each area of human giftedness. A moderately gifted person has to keep his or her gifts bottled up until... he or she gets drunk at a wedding and tap dances on the coffee table like Fred Astaire or ginger Rogers. We have a name for him or her. We call him or her an 'exhibitionist.'"

How do we reward such an exhibitionist? We say to him or her the next morning, 'Wow! Were you ever drunk last night!'"
Actually, I like this equation of our moderate gifts to drunkenness.  I'd say, get drunk more often. Scar that coffee table with the tattoo of your dancing shoes. Not literally drunk, of course. It's hard to write that way -- not to mention build model airplanes. But to feel that you can move about the planet freely, expressing whatever moderate gifts you have. Every now and then, you're going to do something amazing, and I wouldn't want to miss out on that. I'm pretty sure that Vonnegut would agree.