Malcolm Gladwell: Wives Who Pay the Bills (and Late Bloomers versus Prodigies)

What’s the point of pointing out that some kids walk before thier first birthday and some kids walk much later if you’re not going to discuss what this means to the psyches of the parents and child? In the New Yorker article Late Bloomers: Why Do We Equate Genius with Precocity? Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, does not really answer his own subtitle. Late bloomers –writers like Ben Fountain or painters like Cezanne– require years of practice and lots of research but prodigies– writers like Jonathan Safron Foer and painters like Picasso– just, well, spit it out. Says Jonathan Foer about research and rehearsals ‘I couldn’t do that.’

‘Foer began to talk about the other way of writing books, where you
painstakingly honed your craft, over years and years. “I couldn’t do that,” he
said. He seemed puzzled by it. It was clear that he had no understanding of how
being an experimental innovator would work. “I mean, imagine if the craft you’re
trying to learn is to be an original. How could you learn the craft of being an

I’d have liked to know what he doesn’t get? After all, it shouldn’t take a prodigy to understand that some creators might need research and practice over numerous drafts. Gladwell also rhapsodizes over Mrs. Ben Fountain being Mr. Ben Fountain’s ‘patron’ i.e. the person paying the bills. Gladwell writes and rightly so:

‘Sharie was Ben’s wife. But she was also—to borrow a term from long ago—his
patron. That word has a condescending edge to it today, because we think it far
more appropriate for artists (and everyone else for that matter) to be supported
by the marketplace. But the marketplace works only for people like Jonathan
Safran Foer, whose art emerges, fully realized, at the beginning of their
career, or Picasso, whose talent was so blindingly obvious that an art dealer
offered him a hundred-and-fifty-franc-a-month stipend the minute he got to
Paris, at age twenty. If you are the type of creative mind that starts without a
plan, and has to experiment and learn by doing, you need someone to see you
through the long and difficult time it takes for your art to reach its true
level. This is what is so instructive about any biography of Cézanne. Accounts
of his life start out being about Cézanne, and then quickly turn into the story
of Cézanne’s circle….Cezanne didn’t just have help. He had a dream team in his corner.’

Sharon is Ben’s dream team. She ‘worked’ and brought home the bacon while Ben stayed home, wrote in the mornings and, when the kids returned from school, made lunch etc… Many female writers have been living this lifestyle for ages with their husbands their ‘patrons’. What Ben did is a traditionally womanly thing to do i.e. be creative or do something for yourself between child rearing and housekeeping. Imagine someone bursting into applause because ‘he worked while she stayed home, wrote in the mornings and, when the kids came back from school, she made lunch etc..’ This is the humdrum fact of the lives of many women who work from home or aren’t the predominant bill payer.

While Gladwell waxes on about Sharon’s willingness and perhaps ability to allow Ben to stay home while she earns the chappati, Gladwell fails to make much of how deeply Sharon must have believed in Ben’s talent to begin with. Did she read his work? How did she know it would work out? Did she figure let him ‘play’ in the morning, as long as the fridge is stocked by the time I get back home and, if something concrete evolves out of the morning play, why then, all the better for it my dear… What exactly made Sharon Ben’s dream team and how much did that, finances aside, help Ben emotionally? But apparently, according to Gladwell, Sharon’s sacrifice of a dual income family is driving an Accord rather than a BMW as someone in her profession deserves to.

I would have liked Gladwell to explore whether there is a difference in the satisfaction levels of prodigies versus late bloomers once they get published or find their work on a wall? Is Foer’s supposed instant success really the same as Fountain’s belabored one just because the end result is the same? Would you rather be rich and famous (or just famous or just rich) at twenty or at fifty? Let me ask it this way: would you, a prodigy, trade places with a late bloomer or would a late bloomer not trade places with a prodigy?

(published 2008)