Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, October 20, 2013

An Apparently Well-Chosen Nobel

I think one way to look at genius is that it is the ability to recognize non-trade-offs where others see only trade-offs.  Another way to put it is that genius involves the ability to reconcile seemingly irreconcilable things.  Or maybe yet another way to put it is that it may be relatively easy to optimize on one or two dimensions, whereas it takes genius to optimize several dimensions simultaneously.  For most people, to do better along dimensions a, b, and c, you have to do worse along dimensions x, y, and z.  When someone threads the needle, so that you can't imagine any improvements on any dimension, we recognize genius at work.

What got me started on this line of thought is Alice Munro's "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," a short story that is spare in its description of feelings, and yet plumbs emotions more deeply and adroitly than almost anything else I've read.  It is also utterly realistic—the characters especially feel incredibly real to me—and yet it is pitch-perfect on an emotional level.  In fact it excels on so many levels that it seems impossible.  How can a writer keep so many balls in the air at once?

Other examples along these lines are "The Wire" (which has unrealistic plot elements but still feels vividly real) and Anna Karenina.


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