On the Nature of Genius

I don’t usually like books about writers, but I enjoyed the movie Genius, about the relationship between super editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth), who discovered Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and the writer Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), the writer of Look Homeward, Angel and Time and the River. At first you think the genius is Wolfe, a brilliant but erratic and selfish writer, but by the end of the movie, you realize the genius is as much Perkins, who lives by ethics and principles, and devotes his life to burnishing the work of others.

Genius raises an essential question about art and the nature of artists: does genius require narcissism and selfishness and preoccupation with one’s own work to the exclusion of all else, or can genius come from devotion to, empathy for, and compassion for others? There are intriguing scenes between Wolfe and Fitzgerald discussing writing and work, and a scene between Perkins and Hemingway talking about Wolfe that also uncover the difficulty of being an artist and making a living out of your art.

The women in the lives of these two men, Max’s wife Anna (Laura Linney) and Wolfe’s lover Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman) are both wounded to greater or lesser degree by their men’s obsession with work. It makes me wonder if women writers treat the men in their lives the same way, or if they manage to be more balanced in their intimate relationships. Certainly the stereotype of the male artist is one of poor relationships and damaged families. Interestingly, Fitzgerald is shown as a devoted husband to Zelda, who is in the grips of manic depression during the film, but this is shown to have rendered him unable to write. Must there always be a dichotomy between family or love, and work?

A very intelligent movie, especially if you are a writer or other artist, and especially if you work with a super agent or editor (and I’m lucky to have both) who truly believes in you.

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