JohnGardner Art of Ficion Cover

Not the cover you usually see for this great book.

Over at The Millions Michael Bourne (the writer, not the center fielder) has an essay this week called “Magical Thinking: Talent and the Cult of Craft.” Lots of great comments and thinking come after his pretty thoughtful exploration of the question of success in the writing world: Talent? or Craft?

Bourne makes a good case against this statement in John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction:

“[T]he truth is that though the ability to write well is partly a gift — like the ability to play basketball well or outguess the stock market — writing ability is mainly a product of good teaching supported by a deep-down love of writing.”

Maybe Bourne lays it on a little thick about the problem of writers leaning a bit too heavily on the idea of studying the mechanics of good writing and storytelling (especially in MFA and college creative writing programs). I didn’t really pay much attention to that side of the equation. The idea of “talent” just really struck me. There’s no question that it takes talent to write a great story. Virginia Woolf and James Joyce had it. So did Nabokov and William Burroughs. Haruki Murakami has it. So does Annie Dillard and Lydia Davis.

I made the mistake of commenting in the “Comments” section after Bourne’s essay, then clicking the “Notify me of followup comments” box. I try not to do that. Whenever new comments show up in my email they keep bringing me back to thinking about something I thought I was done with. In this case, I kept having to reconsider the fact that Bourne doesn’t really define talent in his essay. And the commenters don’t seem to either.

My third, and last, comment to that thread is below:

“So, Talent? What are we talking about? Artistic depth? Flamboyant, poetic panache? A weird, shamanic ability to see new truth and twisted stories in the dark? Alien intelligence that can’t help trying to create new meaning out of the utter bullshit of modern life (modern being whatever just started happening yesterday)? The simple ability to tell a story in a way to that holds the reader in a “What’s going to happen next?” pose? All of the above?

Or is talent simply the ability to find good people to work with? Especially an agent with brains (gender no matter), an editor with heart (and talent!), and a publisher with balls.

It takes a lot of talent to listen to people like that when they’re right, and to ignore them when they haven’t got a clue.

It also takes talent to know that 79% of the rules by which writers write are utter bullshit and that talent is not something you are aware of if you have it.”

What I do know is that most people don’t read books by talented authors anymore. Success is defined by marketing departments and P.R. teams — and making money. Lots of critics and journalists these days make money ignoring talent or attacking it. Everyone’s focused on what’s new and/or politically correct. Moral fiction is in. It has been for way too long. So is Kim Kardashian’s frightening nude body. What are you reading these days?

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