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Oh, what a talented world we live in. These days, hole up in a hotel room almost anywhere in the world, turn on the TV and, depending where you are, you might soon find yourself deeply immersed in the latest episode of, say, Slovakia’s Got Talent. Chances are, regardless of your locale, at some point you will be confronted with a fetching, trembling little girl with a voice that’s powerful enough to shatter your eardrums, while still tender enough to break your frozen heart. Such is the power of talent. Like pornography – of which US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in 1964, “I know it when I see it” – talent is something we claim to be able to recognise easily.
But it seems that we recognise talent far more easily when it’s accompanied by its occasional companion, success. When success enters the picture, talent pops right up, almost as if a red arrow has been drawn into the frame, leading the eye to where it’s meant to go. Without success, sometimes it’s hard to see talent for what it is. When Joshua Bell, one of the world’s pre-eminent violinists, stood playing in the subway in Washington DC in 2007 as part of a now-famous social experiment in perception, most commuters hurried past, unaware of who he was or how much better – freakishly better – his offering was than the usual busker fare. Without that red arrow of success, Joshua Bell’s talent could easily be overlooked, rushed past, drowned out by the pressing thought: must … get … to ... work.
Experiencing something unusual and especially great can remind you of the absurdity of the often-floated idea that virtually anyone can just become creatively brilliant. Of course practice is essential; and, arguably, certain aspects of artistic achievement can be taught. But when you come upon a rare and indisputable talent, you hear and see and feel things that were previously unimaginable. People say “That’s the real thing”, as though implicitly making a comparison with everything else out there that’s been revealed as a distraction, thin or false.
Of course it’s better to be talented and successful than talented and obscure. Not only is life far easier, and not only does the money allow you the opportunity to keep doing what you love, but finding an appreciative audience – whether listeners, readers or whoever else – can be a relief to someone used to working in a vacuum, or a hovel. But more than ever now, talent and success are confused or spoken of as interchangeable. We profess to love talent, and yet what we sometimes love more is the anointing that follows the revelation of talent. Hence the drama of Susan Boyle singing “I Dreamed a Dream”, which lay not as much in her performance, as in the reaction shots to it – the mouth-open astonishment – as though what was being witnessed were not the fact that a plain woman might be able to sing, but that cold nuclear fusion had been achieved during a TV show. The singing itself? Oh, who the hell cares? Britain’s got talent! And it’s also got success, but that word doesn’t sound quite as pure.
Were talent and success always twinned in some sort of unsavoury coupling? There has certainly been a historical connection between the two, but as with anything it’s a question of degree. I have a distant memory of a time when talent and success were kept more discreetly apart, like meat and potatoes on a finicky eater’s plate. Maybe they would end up together in the end, but knowing which was which was important. In the early lives of most people I know who work in creative fields, what really mattered was the pleasure of doing the thing itself. I can’t exactly call it the pleasure of doing the “art”, because I don’t think anyone thinks of it like that when they’re very young. It’s more like: there’s this thing I do that makes me happy, so I’m going to do it a lot. No one cares yet whether it’s actually any good. As a child, I wrote and performed plays with friends in damp suburban basements, forcing our parents to watch the entire thing, which usually ended up as long as Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia trilogy – but, unlike the Stoppard, pointless and dumb.
There was endless effort expended on “projects”, and all I ever wanted was never to stop. At some point I shifted course, found a better medium, read a lot, studied, grew older, and things got better. Yet even in my early twenties, right out of college, when I arrived in New York City with my young writer friends, we all felt lucky to have cheap rental apartments and be able to spend part of our days (we also had temp jobs) working on our novels. We were all even. We were all the same. We cared only about talent, and not very much about success.
But about this time, as the Reagan years encircled us with their licking flames, there was an attitudinal shift. You could feel it. There were more discussions about book advances, and fewer about ideas. Somebody we knew found himself suddenly very famous for a precocious first novel. Everyone cheered him on, while quietly feeling depressed that this same success hadn’t happened to them (all right, us). One quality erroneously thought to be an essential garnish to talent then seemed to be noise. The louder the better (this was also the era of Julian Schnabel’s giant, macho, broken-plate canvases – and if you listened, you could almost hear the crashing of china) in order to keep up with the din of 1980s swagger, often on display in high-ceilinged, New York City restaurants with horrible acoustics. It was there that deals were made, young writers and artists seduced and often, much later, abandoned.
The evolution went from doing the thing and not caring what it was called; to doing the thing and realising there might be some measure of talent involved; to doing the thing but being preoccupied while doing it about when, if ever, success would arrive with its money, celebrity and stratospheric thread-count. And sometimes trying to game the system, seeing if changing things a bit might bring success more quickly.
Soon the 1980s morphed into the 1990s, and somewhere along the way God gave us the internet, which promised to connect previously undiscovered talent with the world at large. Sure, there are the occasional phenomena, those YouTube sensations who burst out of nowhere and reach millions of viewers, or who gather “hits” – an appropriate word, since the image of a hand lazily slapping at a keyboard seems a good way to describe how we choose our cultural intake. But the problem with the rise of internet culture, along with the 24-hour news cycle, is that the furnace constantly needed to be stoked. There had to be a constant stream of people, faces, personalities standing by to fill up all that time. And so individuals who ordinarily wouldn’t have been in the public eye were suddenly drafted for the job. “Celebrity chef”, “brilliant hairstylist”, the terminology reflecting an aching wish, or need, for widespread specialness – acknowledged, of course, by fame. Even at home, my kids would demand, “Mom, can you make your famous mac and cheese?” How easy then to become a star, an expert, a source of acclaim. Everyone had talent.
In fact, though, very few actually do. The noise of the world is louder now than in one of those 1980s restaurants where I sat eating sea bass with silly squiggles of chervil reduction painting the plate, paid for by an editor who was cocky then, and is perhaps dispirited or unemployed now. It’s not talent that’s brought to the fore most often these days, but success. Whether it’s Joshua Bell playing masterfully to a swirl of indifferent commuters, or a brilliant film that gets a bad review and barely makes a dent in anyone’s consciousness, talent in its pure, beautiful form can be overlooked or misunderstood. Meanwhile, success – which by nature is bottomless, fathomless, and therefore keeps even successful people constantly on the hunt for it – keeps getting the attention. The two continue to be spoken of interchangeably, when in truth the first is the real deal, and the latter is simply the fairy dust that sometimes gets sprinkled on the real deal, and other times gets puzzlingly sprinkled on the mediocre, or the fraudulent, or the happened-to-be-there-at-the-right-time.
We live in a world of shouting, a world thick with millions of hands waving. Democratisation is in many ways something to celebrate, but what it’s also proved is that, truly, nothing much has changed. Yes, success can be bigger and broader and more global than ever, but talent, oh talent – we still know it when we see it, and if we’re really lucky, maybe for a little while it won’t get drowned out in all that noise.
‘The Interestings’ by Meg Wolitzer is published by Chatto & Windus. To comment on this article, please email firstname.lastname@example.org