September 12, 2014

The End of the Lone Genius

The End of the Lone Genius


Joshua Wolf Shenk’s new book, completely fascinating and a safe indoor sport for any number of parlor players, is called Powers of Two. The core idea is that the creative spark that rules our lives — in music, comedy, sports, even scientific discovery — is not a single flame, it’s almost always a pair of creators sparking off each other. Whether you’re talking about Watson and Crick, Gilbert and a Sullivan, Bird and Magic, or the Wright Brothers—it takes two.

Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Powers of Two

Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Powers of Two

These pairs fall into several archetypes, Shenk says, including “the dreamer and the doer.” Such a pair might be the ideal-driven tech entrepreneur Steve Jobs and the practical-minded engineer Steve Wozniak. Or there’s “the liquid and the container,” typified by John Lennon and Paul McCartney—a boundlessly energetic, Dionysian creator brought down to earth by a more ordered character.

Writers are no exception to the model. Even Emily Dickinson, famously secluded in her later life, found in her sister-in-law a creative influence second only to Shakespeare, she wrote, and named Thomas Wentworth Higginson as her preceptor. Creative pairs are everywhere.

Even so, what Shenk calls “the myth of the lone genius” persists in Western culture.

One reason is that lone heroes tend to make good story subjects; profile writers and biographers can more easily concoct stories around individuals than they can around networks or groups. Also, because of a certain power of two, a reader or listener likes to understand the author as a single entity. “There’s an imagined relationship between an admirer and a hero that is itself a kind of dyad,” Shenk says.

And most importantly, the lone hero is more easily sold. The birth of the lone genius and the rise of capitalism go side by side, Shenk contends. Band members might create a song together, but when the contract comes along, often only one person signs his name as the author.

Shenk attempts to turn the page on the cult of personality. Informed by group psychology and Internet culture, he argues that we must understand creativity as something more than the product of isolated minds. Let’s start by looking at pairs.

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