The Limits of “Revisionist History”

Led astray by love for the late bloomer (Gladwellocalypse, Part 1)

Concluding not too long ago, I wrote a series of articles commenting on David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses. At the beginning, I was thinking about the ways that the types he was theorizing applied to my own medium of video games but then as I read further, I began to question the whole notion he was laying out. As he extended from the painters he began with to those working in other media, his taxonomy of creator styles seemed weaker and weaker to me, until I ultimately decided that he was on one hand recapitulating the classical and romantic aesthetics established long ago and on the other dealing in codswallop.

So why did I invest so much time and thought to something that I ended up feeling this way about? Well, sometimes understanding a different point of view can be useful and other times it can turn out there’s nothing to be gained. I’ve read (and sometimes stopped reading) plenty of books over the years that I’ve disagreed with.

This time, just as when I turned away from political satire, I’ll tell you, it’s Malcolm Gladwell’s fault.

However, unlike that incident, this is not a positive event where my eyes were opened, as is often my experience of reading his works and sources. Instead it was a letdown. I’ve been reading him since The Tipping Point, and have typically enjoyed his fresh perspective, interesting research, and engaging writing style. But this was a definite slip up, and I set out to trace the reasons for it.

The piece in which I learned about the book was the “Hallelujah” episode of his podcast, Revisionist History, which was mainly about music. More specifically, it was about the constant remixes that certain “Cézanney” musicians have done, most notably Leonard Cohen, and his many variations of the song the piece takes its title from, “Hallelujah”.

But unlike the book review referenced in the satire paradox, which crammed massive depth into a relatively concise piece, Galenson waxed prolix, with dozens of charts and deep dives into specific aspects of his theory with which I happen to disagree. So in a bang-for-the-buck analysis alone, score one for the London Review of Books.

So why did Gladwell repeat and endorse Galenson’s ideas? I set out to learn, and here’s what I found:

On C-SPAN’s Q&A in 2009, host Brian Lamb asks him which of his pieces he’d spent the most time on. Gladwell has a ready answer:

There’s a piece in What the Dog Saw called “Late Bloomers”, which took three years to get into the magazine. […] I read this book by an economist from Chicago named David Galenson in which—I thought was so fascinating—in which he talked about how genius comes in two very different forms: he talked about the conceptual innovator, who is the person who has the big bold idea, and he talked about the experimental innovator, who is the person who succeeds—creates through trial and error. And the conceptual innovator is the prodigy, right? And the person who works through trial and error is the late bloomer.

And I loved this idea so much because he was dignifying the late bloomer. Which I thought—there was something wonderful in there, but I had a devil of a time finding the right stories to illustrate that point. Because I like—when I have an academic argument—I like to find narratives that complete it. And it just was really hard to find the right ones. But sometimes you have to be persistent.

That time around, he found Ben Fountain for his late bloomer, and his prodigy was Jonathan Safran Foer. I’ll reserve judgement here as I haven’t read the piece, but since Gladwell reopened the subject, I can only deduce that he was not satisfied.

In retrospect, the first red flag should have been the title of Galenson’s book. Gladwell, like myself is not a fan of the term genius as too charged: unattainable and alienating. And it’s an idea that he’s already refuted himself.

Second, Galenson is, as Gladwell notes above, an economist. He is a complete outsider to the field of art history, and looking for a yardstick with which to measure a group of people that he has no real understanding of.

I am a fan of Freakonomics, the work of University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner, just as Gladwell is. The pair seem to be thorough in their research and careful to establish causal relationships rather than correlations. But beyond their work, economics has been reviled throughout its history, with Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle dubbing it “the dismal science” already in the 19th century. And as Mark Twain claims Benjamin Disraeli said on the topic,

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Actually, Disraeli never said it, it’s been generally attributed to Twain himself, but clearly predates either of these uses. Misquotes, and poorly attributed quotes strangely have become a minor theme of this article. Certainly, there have been advances in economics but having some professional insight into how big data is mined and interpreted (also one of the main tools the Freakonomics guys bring into play), I can tell you mistakes are common, and careful scrutiny often uncovers mistaken assumptions.

Back to the topic of so-called geniuses, I’d say, using an argument I learned from Gladwell, that these prodigies are explained by the “10,000-Hour Rule” he cites repeatedly in Outliers. Their supposed precociousness actually relates tautologically to the fact that they started early, Mozart being a notable example. Meanwhile “late-blooming” artists like Cézanne fit better under the heading of perfectionists like Rick Barry in another RevHist article, “The Big Man Can’t Shoot”.

And in the end it’s a false dilemma. Talking on the level of creator styles, and definitely setting aside the notion of genius, I could be placed by Galenson into the former category: I obsessively played and made games as a child, and discovered D&D as an excellent sandbox in which to explore storytelling, worldbuilding, how games could be improved or not through rules changes, etc. By the second half of high school I was thinking about how to parlay that work into getting paid, and other opportunities lacking, I created one myself, running a game at a local community center. From there, getting into video games was a much easier step, and games I’ve worked on have the critical acclaim and awards to demonstrate a healthy career trajectory.

But I also might be called a late bloomer. Even though I started early, my first real successes didn’t come until I was nearly 30. And even those, I lucked into: I always had big ideas, always tried to execute the best game I could, but a project’s scope and genre, whether it used an IP or was original, the skillsets and abilities of the team, the limitations of the tools or platform, how the game was marketed, if we could manage to get it on the shelves in time for Christmas shopping, all were factors over which I had zero control. The Christmas-shopping timing for games has proven to be something of a fallacy since the bad old days of games. Also, “shelves” are a metaphor rather than a reality today.

And that’s the biggest fallacy both Galenson and Gladwell engage in: success is not a meritocracy. The Impressionists broke away from the Salon just when the bourgeoisie became wealthy enough to afford art, and their scenes of natural beauty just happened to be the sort of stuff that appealed to the tastes of these buyers. The official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris was the most important art event in the Western world from 1748–1890 taking place annually or biennially. The Impressionists got tired of trying to produce works of the scale and style the Académie preferred and so decided to hold their own exhibition. Vereinigung Bildender Künstler Österreichs, better known as Vienna Secession similarly broke from the Gesellschaft bildender Künstler Österreichs (Association of Austrian Artists) of the official Künstlerhaus, and similar movements occurred across Europe. If we recontextualuze the Dadaists into that position (for example), they’d have been art history footnote at best. As their provocation is directed at the “serious art world” and the middle classes, it’s doubtful they’d have made any friends at all.

The current buzzword that encapsulates this notion is market fit. It’s suggestion is that before you create your magnum opus, you consider for a moment who the audience for said work might be. Woody Allen’s famous quip:

80 percent of success is showing up.

Also contains the same idea: being in the right place at the right time trumps a lot of cleverness, skill, or what have you. This is unfortunately one of those quotes for which there are various versions, it seems to have been attributed to Allen, and later claimed by him… which I guess proves the point.

The opposing point of view is summed up in the slightly paraphrased Field of Dreams line:

If you build it they will come.

The actual quote is “… he will come.” This is a very American, manifest-destiny, build-a-better mousetrap, will-to-power myth. And furthermore it’s far from a benign one. It’s the one that Randian asshats pat themselves on the back with: their success proves their worthiness, setting aside the silver spoon they’ve gummed since birth, and all the breaks they’ve had along the way, and people who are not successful just didn’t have the bootstrapping grit they should have, and so exist only to be vilified, exploited, or ignored.

Despite my hyperbolic title, this is not an article about how Malcolm Gladwell is a hack who’s wrong about everything, and who you’d do well in the future to avoid reading, let alone citing. This piece is about that one time that Gladwell got it wrong. I submit that people have built careers out of being wrong most of the time, and being well intentioned, but not quite having your point nailed once in a while is exceptional.

I want to be clear that I remain a big fan of Gladwell. Mainly it’s important to understand how personal biases play into our errors. This is a case where Gladwell hasn’t found the research to back up his value for the late bloomer, and lacking that, hasn’t found a narrative to go along with it. As someone who (I hope) continues to grow intellectually and as a creator, I hope he finds them.

Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 2: The Unfit “King”

Part 2 Addendum: Golf No Softball

Part 3: Descent into the Absurd

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