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.

Don’t Let Them Squash Your Creativity

With all the roles that many of us have to fill throughout the day—friend, employee, spouse, parent, consumer, and so on—the creative self can be one of the most fragile. Even though for many of us the creative self is deeply embedded and even essential to our sanity, it is also easily crushed.

Many forces stand ready to squash the creative self. You no doubt have been struck by these enemies. Even the most successful people are prone to these creativity crushers. To name just one example, there are the naysayers. These are the people who tell you, either directly or in some other dismissive way, that you just can’t do it. You’re not good enough. Or you’re not as good as you used to be. Who do you think you are? Nobody asked for your creativity.

Growing up, I always felt vaguely embarrassed about wanting to be a writer. I feared that if I said too much about it, I was simply opening myself up to mockery. It felt so pretentious to want to write a novel. Who was I?

So I hid it. I wrote my first novel almost secretly. When I would go off to write, I would be vague with family and friends about what I was doing, telling them simply that I had work to do. In college, I was so paranoid about my roommates reading over my shoulder that I developed a secret coded language in which I could write when others were around, which I then had to decode later.

Today I am still tempted to let my creativity be squashed, not so much by naysayers, but by other enemies such as procrastination, the pressures of life, fear of rejection, weariness.

Yet the words, the ideas, keep bubbling up. When the ideas come, I think, I have to write this. Why is no one else saying this? I find myself writing as fast as I can, letting the momentum carry me. In those great moments, the creativity blasts right through the doubts, tiredness, discouragement, and second-guessing. I write. I create.

This semester I am working with an outstanding group of writers in a course I am teaching in the new M.A. in English program at Azusa Pacific University. The theme of our course, which I write on the board every week, is, What is possible for me as a writer?

Part of our work involves breaking down obstacles that discourage creativity. I will mention only two of them here, which stall many writers:

1. Nobody cares whether you create or not. The world is not asking for your work. Nobody is out there saying, “The world is a diminished place because you are sitting there not doing your writing.” If you don’t write, they won’t know or care. The world will go right on.

2. The market is already glutted. Mountains of work are already being rejected every day. So who needs you in there adding to that pile and struggling to compete?

Harsh, I know. I’m reluctant to even mention those things, but for many writers, it’s not as if these dark thoughts don’t already plague us fairly regularly.

So why keep writing?

Let’s look at that first obstacle. The world may not be asking for your work and may not think they need it, but the world in fact may be a diminished place without your writing. Think of your favorite author. Would your life be diminished if that writer had not written the books you love? Of course. For example, I love the novels of Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner. Some of the most meaningful hours of my life have been spent with their words flowing through my head. The world would be a much shallower place if they had let obstacles to writing stand in their way, and for both of them, there were many obstacles.

You may or may not have the wide impact of those two writers, but picture one reader who reads your words at just the right moment, who is challenged, inspired, or entertained by exactly what you have to say. You have made the world richer for that reader, and perhaps many others, even people who haven’t been born yet. Write for those readers. It’s worth it.

As for the second obstacle, the glutted market, it’s true. Amazon boasts around 8 million books, more than the world needs for a lifetime. Online and print magazines, newspapers, website, blogs and other sources have an almost infinite number of articles, videos, lists, and other material available. There is no shortage.

And yet, as a reader, don’t you still find yourself searching for something new, something that fills a particular need that sometimes you can’t even articulate? Be the writer who writes that for someone else.

As a writer, I have known the joy of connecting with readers. Not as many as I would like to have connected with, of course. But I have known the fulfillment of connecting with that individual reader who gets what I’m doing, who loves it, who needs it. That’s what keeps me writing. I’m not willing to let anything crush it.

The Best Five Answers: What Time Period Do You Wish You Had Been Born In, and Why?

I have always felt that I was born in the wrong era. Like the main character in the film, Midnight in Paris, I always felt I would have fit in better in the era of some of the literary geniuses I admire from the 1920s and ‘30s—writers like Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. This week’s question was:

What time period do you wish you had been born in, and why?

I received some fascinating responses to this, and it was hard to choose the Best Five Answers. A surprising number of respondents said they are content with the era they were born in. The 1800s was a popular era, and so was the future. Will Cook would have been happy to have been born in 2125, when he imagines he would have a “half-synthetic, half-flesh body,” and Kay Smith would like to have been born in an unspecified time in the future “when women are treated as fully human in the church.”

With many great responses to choose from, here are the Best Five Answers, followed by next week’s question:

5. “16,000 BC in current day location of Cyprus. Pretty sure I could have walked to Atlantis and witnessed the true precursor to the pyramid civilizations before global meltdown and flooding covered them. (Yes, I am serious and, no, I’m not a nut!).”

–Robert Green

4. “The same period I was born in, 1983. The reason being is I’ve gotten to see so much technological changes/innovations as I’ve grown up. One of the first things I learned to do was operate a record player. CD’s took off and now digital downloads are the norm. Same goes with music videos, used to VH1 or MTV was the go to place for that, now you can pull up YouTube and see just about any video you want. The Internet also has made it easier to stay in touch, reconnect or make new friends.”

–Nathan Webb

3. “Before watching Midnight in Paris, I probably would have answered the question with the 1840s because of the music, fashion, and historical events. After watching Midnight in Paris I realized, like Owen Wilson’s character, that I wouldn’t want to be born at any other time than I was. He rightly says something along the lines that the present is unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying. This, right now, is my Golden Age.”

–Sara Flores

2. “I wish I had been born in the 2200s because then I would probably be able to teleport. But hopefully the world’s resources wouldn’t be decimated by then….”

–Abbi Mleziva

1. “I would be born in 1935, I would be but a child as the war swelled and then ebbed, just old enough to have been able to look up over London into a rumbling sky filled complete by thousands of USAAF B17 bombers, each guided by diesel propellers leaving four elegant streams of blue trailing behind the formation. Fighter escorts aligned like geese surround the bombers top, bottom, and side. The entire earth would rumble as countless thousands of steel bombers and fighters ripped through the grey London skies on towards Germany–the might of American economies of scale and mass production all slowly growling out over the English Channel to break the back of the Axis. Minutes pass and finally the sky would be empty again for hours before evening when the steel birds would come limping back overhead, bombless and bleeding black smoke. These thunderous fleets of aircraft will never again be witnessed—technology raced ahead so quickly that war waged in the skies is now invisible and supersonic and remote. Men don’t take to the sky by the countless thousands lined as far as they eye can see now. And this I lament because of its ephemeralness. It must have been a strangely harrowing sight to peer up, nine years old, bright blue eyed, and see no sky but only smoke and steel.”

–Brian Kraft

Now I invite you to respond to the question for next week:

If you could improve your life in one way, what would it be?