“Let’s examine the word ‘genius.’ It doesn’t mean screwiness or eccentricity or excessive ‘talent.’ It is derived from the Latin word gignere (to beget) and a genius is simply a person who originates something never known before. Nobody but Melville could have written Moby Dick, not even Whitman or Shakespeare.” ~ Jack Kerouac, “Are Writers Made or Born?”
If you get a chance, you should really read the whole text of “Are Writers Made or Born?” – Kerouac covers a lot of ground in a short space of essay. In it, he talks about the difference between a genius and an interpreter. His argument is that a genius is someone who does something that has never been done before: like Walt Whitman with poetic lines or James Joyce with the stream-of-conciousness thing.
He goes to explain the idea of an interpreter: “I always laugh to hear Broadway wiseguys talk about ‘talent’ and ‘genius.’ Some perfect virtuoso who can interpret Brahms on the violin is called a ‘genius,’ but the genius, the originating force, really belongs to Brahms; the violin virtuoso is simply a talented interpreter – in other words, a ‘Talent.’”
So, in other words, there are genius writers and there are interpretive writers. You can be talented, but still not be a genius.
I don’t know if I entirely agree with this assessment. I’m more inclined to think that there are two types of genius.
The first type is identical to Kerouac’s definition of genius – the guys and gals who put out something that hasn’t been seen before. You know their names: James Joyce, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and even Gertrude Stein’s weird repetition, weird repetition.
However, I have to disagree with his assessment of interpreters not being geniuses in their own right.
In his essay he brings up Thomas Hardy – a genius writer, right? Kerouac thinks so, and I think so, but Kerouac says that Hardy was an originator…and there I have to disagree. I say Thomas Hardy was a kick-ass interpreter.
He wrote long, sprawling, Victorian epics whose subject matter stretched the boundaries of what was ‘decent’ or ‘acceptable’. But he didn’t create the three-volume form that was so popular during the Victorian period. Nor did he develop the serialized epics that were equally as popular…and in which he participated. Nor did he create the idea of writing epic tales of relationships, industrialization, or interfamily conflicts. He’s a genius the same way George Eliot and Charles Dickens are geniuses: working with subject matter, and working within a structure that’s already been developed, and telling the world as they see it, building on the authors that have come before. That’s interpreting something, not creating it.
Now, Kerouac defends Hardy as a genius because, no matter what, Hardy would always write like Hardy – and I see and appreciate that argument. But I’d also argue that a genius interpreter would always sound like him or herself. If we’re going to use some musical examples, yes, Brahms is an originating genius…but he doesn’t sound the same when performed by, say, Yo-Yo Ma. It takes on a new life. You know when Yo-Yo Ma is playing. That skill level, that talent, is a form of genius.