Jonathan Franzen’s first two novels, published in 1988 and 1992 respectively, were well received but it wasn’t until a third, The Corrections (2001), that his career really accelerated into the territory of best-seller charts, prize nominations and honours lists. He was forty-two and had been publishing fiction for over twelve years. In 2002 another Jonathan — Jonathan Safran Foer – published his debut novel at the age of twenty-five. Everything Is Illuminated was widely praised as an epoch-making work, its author feted as a new literary great. It had taken Foer around two-and-a-half years to complete. Franzen, by contrast, had spent seven years writing The Corrections and almost a decade on his most recent book, Freedom, which is currently being hailed as the new Great American Novel.
As the examples of Franzen and Foer suggest, some writers publish their masterpieces quickly and at a young age, while others come to their best work later in life and career. In 2007 the Chicago economist David Galenson, trying to make sense of these widely differing approaches, came up with a new theory of artistic creativity: Old Masters and Young Geniuses: Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity. Based on a study of the ages at which various major artists (or ‘innovators’ as Galenson terms them) made their greatest contributions to the field, he identifies two main artistic types: the conceptual and the experimental.
The conceptual innovators:
‘…use their art to express ideas and emotions. The precision of their goals allows them to plan their work, and execute it decisively. Their most radical new ideas, and consequently their greatest innovations, occur early in their careers.’
While the experimental innovators:
‘…seek to record their perceptions. They proceed tentatively, by trial and error, building their skills gradually, and making their greatest contributions late in their lives.’
F Scott Fitzgerald (who wrote The Great Gatsby at twenty-nine), T. S. Eliot (Prufrock, written at twenty-three), Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, twenty-five) and Pablo Picasso (Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, twenty-six) are all categorized by Galenson as conceptual innovators. In particular Picasso, who had fundamentally altered the direction of Modern Art before his thirtieth birthday, was entirely dismissive of the notion of experimentation and trial and error in the creative process. As Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote about Galenson in The New Yorker in 2008, notes:
‘Picasso once said in an interview with the artist Marius de Zayas, “In my opinion, to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing.” He continued, “The several manners I have used in my art must not be considered as an evolution or as steps toward an unknown ideal of painting. . . . I have never made trials or experiments.’’’
Contrastingly, Galenson identifies Paul Cezanne as a typical experimental innovator. The French artist, who began painting seriously at a similar age to Picasso, produced his most expensive and widely viewed works at the age of sixty-seven. A typical trial-and-error worker, he had a reputation for destroying his canvases, for throwing away in frustration works later regarded as masterpieces, for abandoning portraits after upwards of a hundred sittings. Other experimentalists, according to Galenson, include Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Virginia Woolf and Robert Frost (who wrote his most anthologized work, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, at the age of forty-eight). In his New Yorker piece Gladwell suggests also the writer Ben Fountain, who spent eighteen years completing his highly regarded debut short-story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara (2006).
In a 2009 paper, Understanding Creativity, Galenson argued that since the late Nineteenth Century the contemporary art world has been weighted in favour of the conceptual innovator:
‘In a market setting that rewarded innovation, conceptual artists who could innovate rapidly and conspicuously gained a decisive advantage over their experimental counterparts.’
And though Galenson doesn’t make any specific claims with regards to literature, you might intuit that an experimental writer will probably need greater emotional and financial support during the early part of their career than their conceptualist counterpart. (Cezanne, for example, was funded by his father for large parts of his life; Fountain was supported by his wife.) Sadly the Chicago economist doesn’t go on to explain how long-suffering parents/spouses are to distinguish the experimental innovator from the slacker, the interminable procrastinator, the plain ‘just never going to be very good’, but for those writers who, like Franzen in 1992, are tagged ‘Promising. Please Watch’, Fiction Uncovered may be of some assistance, may help them along the way to reaching their own Corrections moment.
Helen Gordon, Novelist