Who Gets to Be a Genius? A Reading List

Photo: Sue Clark

If you Google “Constance Fenimore Woolson,” the top item is her Wikipedia page. The second is an excerpt of a book about the author Henry James.

I hadn’t heard of Woolson until recently. She’s the subject of a new biography by Anne Boyd Roux, Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady NovelistTo herald her new biography, a collection of Woolson’s short stories has been published, too.

Until now, Woolson has been an interesting, tragic anecdote in the lives of others. She’s the alleged inspiration for the Lady in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. Never mind that she was an accomplished writer in her own right or a world traveler.

I like calling Woolson “CFW.” It reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s oft-used nickname, and Wallace is one of those names people gesture at emphatically when they toss out the words “literary genius.” I like sneaking Woolson into the lit boys’ club.

DFW aside, the concept of “Genius” has been abused. Sexual harassment and rape, entitlement and rudeness—these are all excused in the face of “great” art. How do we live with the tension between a movie that makes us cry with joy and its douchebag creator? Or a favorite book, written by a man who committed his wife to an insane asylum when she got to be too much trouble? Why does it often take decades, even centuries, for work by women to be “discovered” and appreciated? I don’t know, but I think each of these pieces gets at an aspect of these questions.

1. “‘Constance Fenimore Woolson’ Gives 19th Century Novelist Second Look.” (Amy Gentry, Chicago Tribune, February 2016)

It would be silly for me not to include (one of the only) reviews of Anne Boyd Roux’s biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson, and writer Amy Gentry does an excellent job of summing up the double standards Woolson faced in her lifetime.

2. “Srsly.” (Sarah Mesle, LARB, November 2014)

Sarah Mesle uses her review of Mallory Ortberg’s Texts from Jane Eyre to analyze the sexist bent of “Genius with a capital G”—that there is opportunity to use modern communications (texting) or “unserious” mediums (Twitter) to dismantle patriarchal grandstanding:

Genius, of course, is not necessarily male, but Ortberg’s work makes us realize the extent to which the idea of genius — let’s mark it as Genius with a capital G — remains strangely masculinized; strikingly available to men regardless of their actual talent…

Ortberg dismantles Male Genius so effectively that she allows her readers to create an imaginative space outside of male seriousness; this is her appeal. In the space she creates, Male Genius is not so much a powerful symbolic order as a self-involved and bumbling habit, one that we might easily leave by the snack table while we get on with the more serious business of living dynamic creative lives.

3. “The Difference Maker: Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, and Women in Tech.” (Molly McArdle, Grantland, January 2015)

To combat the concept of the tech bro, there must be a tech sisterhood. Tech history is not a chain of command, it’s a crazy quilt — no machine is ever really built by one person alone. It would be a mistake to consider Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper as just lone geniuses — the same way it is a mistake to think that way of the men. But they are two avatars of importance for women in tech — the proof that natural talent knows no type.

4. “Quaint Interviews: Madame Clairevoyant on Anti-Genius.” (Soleil Ho, Quaint Magazine, December 2014)

“Shit-talking from a place of love” with Claire Comstock-Gay, fiction writer and creator of the Anti-Genius school of thought.

5. “In Your Own Image.” (Anna Fitzpatrick, Rookie, May 2013)

Anna Fitzpatrick decries the misplaced accusations of narcissism that plague female creatives: “If you’re a guy who makes stuff and you tend to be oblivious to the needs of others because you are obsessed with the inner workings of your own mind, people will call you a genius. A woman with these qualities is more likely to be called crazymonstrous, an attention whore.