The Cézanne-like genius of Ben Fountain
Before you watch acclaimed author, North Carolina native Ben Fountain, on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch this weekend (Friday at 9:30 p.m. or Sunday at 5 p.m.), you should read Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 New Yorker article titled “Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?”
Have you already tossed that old magazine? Not to worry. It is available online right here.
And why do I want you to read Gladwell before you watch Fountain talk about his acclaimed debut novel, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”?
Short answer: Fountain is the lead character in Gladwell’s non-fiction story about the rich rewards of late or slow-blooming genius.
Another character in the piece is the painter Cézanne. Gladwell contrasts Cézanne with Picasso, whose early works, painted in the exuberance of his youth, are much more valuable than those he painted later in life. On the other hand, the opposite is true for Cézanne.
“The paintings he created in his mid-sixties were valued fifteen times as highly as the paintings he created as a young man. The freshness, exuberance, and energy of youth did little for Cézanne. He was a late bloomer — and for some reason, in our accounting of genius and creativity, we have forgotten to make sense of the Cézannes of the world.”
Gladwell suggests that Cézanne’s long struggle and search made his ultimately successful work richer and deeper than had his success come quicker and easier. First quoting English art critic Roger Fry, Gladwell wrote, “‘More happily endowed and more integral personalities have been able to express themselves harmoniously from the very first. But such rich, complex, and conflicting natures as Cézanne’s require a long period of fermentation.’ Cézanne was trying something so elusive that he couldn’t master it until he’d spent decades practicing.”
For Gladwell, Ben Fountain is “one of the Cézannes of the world.” He makes the comparison of Cézanne’s long struggles to Fountain’s years of writing before his genius was recognized. “This is the vexing lesson of Fountain’s long attempt to get noticed by the literary world. On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all.”
Fountain left his work as a lawyer and began writing in 1988. His blockbuster, award-winning book of short stories “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara,” came out in 2006, eighteen years later. Gladwell writes ironically, “The ‘young’ writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.”
A long struggle, but the struggle framed Fountain’s success. He became consumed by Haiti, going back and forth about 30 times. Gladwell points out that “four of the stories are about Haiti, and they are the strongest in the collection. They feel like Haiti; they feel as if they’ve been written from the inside looking out, not the outside looking in.”
According to Gladwell, Fountain’s writing reads with easy grace, but, he says, “there was nothing easy or graceful about its creation.”
In his 2008 article, Gladwell wrote, “Fountain is at work right now on a novel. It was supposed to come out this year. It’s late.”
Fountain had been working on that novel, “The Texas Itch,” for eight years. Shortly after the Gladwell article was published, Fountain gave up on it, tossed it. He says it was not good enough.
But he plunged into the writing of “Billy Lynn” and applying the rough lessons from the failure of “The Texas Itch,” he has produced a sensational novel, one that is being called “as close to the Great American Novel as anyone is likely to come these days” and “the ‘Catch-22’ of the Iraq War.”
Don’t miss the chance to hear Fountain talk about his new book on North Carolina Bookwatch this weekend.