Genius: It’s More Complicated than That

I loved watching Genius, the new film about the relationship between novelist Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) and his legendary editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth). At the same time, I wasn’t completely satisfied with it.

I admit that this lack of satisfaction may not be entirely the fault of the movie itself. I am a Thomas Wolfe fan and scholar and have loved his work for almost 30 years, so it’s possible that nothing less than about a 9-hour movie would have been enough to satisfy me.

Perhaps my overall reaction to the film can best be summed up by a comment I kept making to my wife as she and I sat in a coffee shop right after the movie and discussed our responses. She has not read Wolfe or A. Scott Berg’s book on which this movie is based, so as she mentioned scenes that stood out to her and asked if that’s what really happened, I kept saying, “Well, yes, but it was more complicated than that.”

Any film on this subject would have to oversimplify some things, of course. Perkins became one of the greatest editors of 20th century American literature, as he helped establish not only Wolfe’s career but also that of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and others. He was a complex figure, as Berg’s book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, brilliantly shows. Wolfe was equally complex, and the relationship between him and his editor, both when it was working well and when it was crumbling, is hard to capture in any movie of a couple of hours. Throw in other elements such as Wolfe’s tempestuous affair with his lover Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), and Perkins’ relationships with his wife and daughters, and you have enough material for a min-series rather than a movie.

Still, even though as I watched it I kept thinking, “Wait, slow down, there’s more to show about that incident,” I still enjoyed the movie overall and strongly recommend it. Here are a few moments that stand out:

• The opening 10 minutes alone made are worth the price of the whole movie for me. An editor plops the huge manuscript of Wolfe’s O Lost (which would eventually become Look Homeward, Angel) onto Perkins’ desk and asks him to read it. Perkins promises to give it a quick look, but in the following minutes, as we hear voice-over passages from the book, Perkins is mesmerized by the novel over the next few days as he rides the train, ignores the greetings of his family at home, or sits at his desk and combs through page after page. The beauty of the writing itself is what Perkins was masterful at recognizing, and this scene captures it.

• Colin Firth gives the best performance in the film. He embodies Perkins’ reserved but in-control personality that served him so well as an editor and that comes through so forcefully in Berg’s book. Perkins was able to modulate his responses to the needs of the very different personalities of his authors. He did not participate in the foibles of those men, but he didn’t turn away from them because of those flaws either. He was the true father-figure, strong and steady.

• Even though some of the factual details of how Wolfe and Perkins worked together on Of Time and the River are altered, the film brings to life the creative collaboration of these two men as they spend hours arguing and editing and wrestling the manuscript into shape.

• Even some of the small moments make the film memorable—stacks of Look Homeward, Angel appearing in the bookstore window at the novel’s release, Perkins reading the book to his daughter when she misses Tom, the moving reading of Wolfe’s final letter to Perkins (even though some details of its composition and delivery are altered).

For many of us who love Wolfe’s writing, our hope has been that this film would bring Wolfe the renewed attention we think his work deserves. We hope readers will want to go out and read one of his novels. I believe this movie may have that effect. As the film ended, I heard a woman behind us tell her friend she hadn’t read any of Wolfe’s novels, but she sounded as if she wanted to. I hope she does. I was ready to go home and read one of them again myself.

Why I Write (by John Small)

Editor’s Note: This post is the second in a series that will feature former students of mine who have become professional writers. I asked each of them to focus on the topic, “Why I Write.” Today’s post features my friend and former student, John Small, whom I met during my early years of teaching at Olivet Nazarene University in the mid-1980s. I taught journalism and literature and advised the student newspaper. John was editor-in-chief of the paper and did excellent work. He has continued to thrive as a journalist ever since. (To see the first post in this series, by Dr. Michael Clark, scroll down or click here.)  

Greetings. My name is John Small; I am the news editor and columnist for the Johnston County Capital-Democrat, a weekly small town news paper headquartered in Tishomingo, Oklahoma. I met Joe Bentz while were were both at Olivet Nazarene University; age-wise we are contemporaries, but I was the student and he was my college advisor and journalism professor and I worked with him at the campus newspaper, the GlimmerGlass. We both left the same year as I recall, he to take his job at Azusa Pacific and I to take the job here. Always makes me think there was a reason we were both there at the same time, but I suppose that’s a topic for another time…

WHY I WRITE

by John Small

It occurs to me that there is no one easy answer to that question.

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I was fortunate enough to have parents who both love to read, and they saw to it that I earned to read as a much younger age than the other kids my age. My mother claims my love of writing stems from that; the story she likes to tell is that I started writing my own stuff because we ran out of things at the house for me to read. That certainly sounds like something I would have done.

My late younger brother Jimmy always said I took up writing as a defense mechanism. When you’re the lone bookworm in a class overflowing with jocks and jerks you tend to get picked on a lot – but the picking lessens considerably when they realize you’re the only one who can help them with their term papers.

My wife Melissa likes to say I became a writer to get her attention. That’s not entirely true, as I was writing long before I met her; on the other hand, why argue with success.

My own feeling is that I became a writer because Continue reading

Why Write Books at All? A Case Against It

Is writing books still worth the effort?

I know writers at every level who are asking that question, from new writers I meet at writers conferences to authors with multiple published books. This week I will make a case against writing a book, and next week I will make a case in favor of it. Please jump in with your own ideas or considerations I may have overlooked.

Here are some reasons not to write a book:

1. The Market is Already Flooded.

For me, this is one of the most discouraging reasons of all. Bowker, the organization that publishes Books in Print, reports that 347,178 new books were published last year in the United States. Let that sink in for a moment. Picture 10 books lined up in front of you. Now picture 100. Now 1,000. Now try to see a warehouse filled with 100,000. Now triple that. And you want to pour out your heart and soul to add one more book to that enormous pile?

The statistics are actually even more daunting than I have indicated. More than a million additional public domain books and reprints were also published last year, so a writer of a new book has to compete with those too. If you want to look at the figures for yourself, see the article on Bowker’s website here.

Of course I am mentioning only the books published in 2011. Let’s not even think of the millions of books published in the years and decades and centuries before that, or the ones that continue to pop up every day.

2. In the New World of Publishing, Books are Devalued.

Thanks to how easy and inexpensive it has become to publish e-books, books are no longer the valuable, prized possessions they used to be. Right now I couldn’t even tell you how many unread free downloaded books I have sitting in my Kindle. I don’t even recall the titles or authors of half of them. Those books are in addition to the many other impulse-buy 99-cent books that are there, along with a smattering of $2.99 books that I haven’t yet opened. This trend toward cheaper books is good for consumers in a way, but if a book costs about as much as a medium soda, will I value it about that much? What message does that send to publishers and readers about how much authors should be valued?

I remember when buying a book took a greater amount of thought and deliberation and even financial sacrifice than it does now. When my favorite authors came out with new books, I often wanted them right away, so I would Continue reading

Why Bible Writers Would Have a Hard Time Finding a Publisher Today

It is often said that the Bible is the all-time bestselling book, but it achieved that status in a much earlier publishing era. What would happen if the Bible were submitted as a new book to a publisher today? I imagined how an editor trained in today’s publishing realities might respond to it:

Dear Writer:

I have read your manuscript that you are calling “The Bible,” and I wanted to offer you a little feedback before I inform you of our decision about whether to publish. I admit that I didn’t read all of it, and I frankly doubt that most of your readers would either. I mean, it’s looo-o-ong. Do you know the attention span of the average reader today? Will anyone have the patience for this book?

Not only is it long, but the subject matter is rather diffuse, to say the least. This book has poetry, history, biography, theology, prophecy, parables, hymns, proverbs, and probably a few other genres I’m forgetting. Doesn’t that seem a bit—overwhelming? Who is your audience?

Not to nitpick, but I also have a little trouble understanding your organizational structure. For instance, do you really want to put that hymn book right there in the middle? 150 songs? And those sections you call Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Aren’t those a little repetitive? Have you thought of just combining those into one?

I don’t mean to discourage you, but I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few readers are offended by this book. It can be a little polarizing. It’s so violent, for one thing. Stonings, crucifixions, wars, a flood, a woman turned into a pillar of salt. For goodness sake, children may read this! And what about that story where the woman drives the tent peg through the man’s temple Continue reading