Kerouac’s Genius/Interpreter Theory vs. Jenny’s Genius/Genius Theory

Let’s examine the word ‘genius.’ It doesn’t mean screwiness or eccentricity or excessive ‘talent.’ It is derived from the Latin word gignere (to beget) and a genius is simply a person who originates something never known before. Nobody but Melville could have written Moby Dick, not even Whitman or Shakespeare.” ~ Jack Kerouac, “Are Writers Made or Born?”

If you get a chance, you should really read the whole text of “Are Writers Made or Born?” – Kerouac covers a lot of ground in a short space of essay. In it, he talks about the difference between a genius and an interpreter. His argument is that a genius is someone who does something that has never been done before: like Walt Whitman with poetic lines or James Joyce with the stream-of-conciousness thing.

He goes to explain the idea of an interpreter: “I always laugh to hear Broadway wiseguys talk about ‘talent’ and ‘genius.’ Some perfect virtuoso who can interpret Brahms on the violin is called a ‘genius,’ but the genius, the originating force, really belongs to Brahms; the violin virtuoso is simply a talented interpreter – in other words, a ‘Talent.’”

So, in other words, there are genius writers and there are interpretive writers. You can be talented, but still not be a genius.

I don’t know if I entirely agree with this assessment. I’m more inclined to think that there are two types of genius.

The first type is identical to Kerouac’s definition of genius – the guys and gals who put out something that hasn’t been seen before. You know their names: James Joyce, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and even Gertrude Stein’s weird repetition, weird repetition.

However, I have to disagree with his assessment of interpreters not being geniuses in their own right.

In his essay he brings up Thomas Hardy – a genius writer, right? Kerouac thinks so, and I think so, but Kerouac says that Hardy was an originator…and there I have to disagree. I say Thomas Hardy was a kick-ass interpreter.

He wrote long, sprawling, Victorian epics whose subject matter stretched the boundaries of what was ‘decent’ or ‘acceptable’. But he didn’t create the three-volume form that was so popular during the Victorian period. Nor did he develop the serialized epics that were equally as popular…and in which he participated. Nor did he create the idea of writing epic tales of relationships, industrialization, or interfamily conflicts. He’s a genius the same way George Eliot and Charles Dickens are geniuses: working with subject matter, and working within a structure that’s already been developed, and telling the world as they see it, building on the authors that have come before. That’s interpreting something, not creating it.

Now, Kerouac defends Hardy as a genius because, no matter what, Hardy would always write like Hardy – and I see and appreciate that argument. But I’d also argue that a genius interpreter would always sound like him or herself. If we’re going to use some musical examples, yes, Brahms is an originating genius…but he doesn’t sound the same when performed by, say, Yo-Yo Ma. It takes on a new life. You know when Yo-Yo Ma is playing. That skill level, that talent, is a form of genius.

Where to Put the Good Blonde?

In Good Blonde and Others, the opening selection is about Kerouac, hitchhiking back from Mexico, catching a ride in a brand-new Lincoln Mercury driven by a beautiful blonde in a bathing suit. Throughout the section, Kerouac wonders who on Earth would ever believe that he’s so lucky?

Apparently, he didn’t think anyone really would, or he thought the section too lengthy, or he thought some other kind of editorial thing about it…because it remains as a fragment. He mentions the blonde in the second chapter of The Dharma Bums (imagine my interest when it suddenly appeared as I was reading along), but she is a brief, flitting literary construction to get him from point A to point B:

“hitchhiking the rest of the way from Santa Barbara in one long zipping ride given me, as though anybody’ll believe this, by a beautiful darling young blonde in a snow-white strapless bathing suit and barefooted with a gold bracelet on her ankle, driving a next-year’s cinnamon-red Lincoln Mercury, who wanted Benzedrine so she could drive all the way to the City”

An almost-paragraph is all that’s left of some twenty odd pages of writing.

So, why not put in everything and make it a longer chapter?

This has something to do with the tone of the book The Dharma Bums. The main guy, Ray Smith (another Kerouac doppelganger), is all about enlightenment…and sex doesn’t enter into it. Now, I’m not psychic, but I bet Kerouac had that figured out. Rule of thumb: don’t put in lengthy sections that have nothing to do with your theme/point/story. Episodic as it is, The Dharma Bums, like On the Road, is a focused presentation of a period in Kerouac’s life – not everything is gonna make it in.

A lot of good writers do this: write way more than they would ever need. I read somewhere that Amy Tan wrote almost a thousand pages for The Joy Luck Club. The end product is around three hundred pages. That’s seven hundred pages of material that didn’t get in there. Same with Kerouac. “Good Blonde” is a twenty page episode cut down to about a paragraph.

How do you know what material is extraneous material? How do you know where to put the Good Blonde? Or do you even utilize your Good Blonde section at all?

A few things that I’ve thought of to help in the decision making process:

1. Finish your story…all thousands of pages of it…and take a real hard look to see what it’s really about. If it is about a mother’s love, do you really need the main character to be married five times and to focus so much on husband number three? Probably not. Stuff like that can be pared down. Throw it on a scrap pile to be cannibalized later into a short story or something.

2. Is the extra material all front-loaded? If it’s taking your forever to get to the real story – like a hundred pages or so – you may be doing what they call ‘a running start’. Most of the material you think of as character-building, or background, is extra. The Good Blonde portion of The Dharma Bums is up front. If Kerouac had spent twenty pages telling us about this unbelievably lucky pick-up he would have taken an extra twenty pages to get Ray (main character) and Japhy together – and that’s the central relationship in the story, so the Blonde is just a run-up. You can cut those. Scrap pile ’em.

3. Conversely, does the denouement of your story go on forever, like Lord of the Rings? Similar principles to #2 apply.

4. Can characters be combined? Do you really need enlightenment scenes with three different characters? Why not smush it all down to one scene and one character? If you find yourself repeating insights or details, remember: the reader will get it the first time! You’re not adding in new or essential information at that point and the scene, as well as the characters that go with it, can probably go.

Thursday Reviews!: Good Blonde and Others by Jack Kerouac (A Mentor Review!)

Good BlondeGood Blonde by Jack Kerouac

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Best part about this book:

The sections where Kerouac talks his writing style. There are two selection/chapters that cover this “spontaneous prose”: “The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” and “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose.” Both are kind of checklists; but how-to lists might be more accurate. Interesting, downright fascinating…though I’m not 100% sure what to do with stuff like #14 in “Belief”: “Like Proust, be an old teahead of time.” But I can certainly get behind #29: “You’re a Genius all the time.” (I tell myself this everyday. Heehee.)

And speaking of genius — the essay “Are Writers Made or Born?” is AWESOME. Basically he separates the idea of great talents (what he refers to as interpreters…like a great violinist is not Mozart, for example, even though he/she plays well) and geniuses — the Mozarts — are people who create something new that hasn’t been seen before. Worth reading even if you read nothing else in this collection.

Other stuff that was pretty good:

His arguments for Beat and what it is. His definitions are meant to clarify a lot of the philosophy of the Beat movement. I don’t know if they clarify too much…but I think I caught a few details that I didn’t know before. Probably one of his most interesting observations in “On the Beats” is “The dope thing will die out. That was a fad, like bathtub gin.”

The stuff you have to wade through:

Sports. While he makes some really great arguments for why baseball strategy (walking the best hitters, etc.) makes for dull games and players who don’t know how to swing for the fences…for the most part the sports sections are dull. The games and seasons he writes about are long gone, and the immediacy of a sports article doesn’t reverberate through the ages like we would like. Even for a writer like Kerouac.

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