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The Spark of Genius

In May, The Atlantic’s first Culture Issue explored the genesis of ideas, plumbing the thoughts and experiences of more than a dozen American artists.

I’m dismayed that your May 2011 Culture Issue failed to mention any of the important contributions that many men and women involved in science and technology have made to our evolving culture. It’s virtually impossible to think of the works of artists like Paul Simon, Chuck Close, Sarah Ruhl, Lupe Fiasco, Frank Gehry, or indeed many other creative geniuses, in the absence of cell phones, word processors, music synthesizers, or modern treatments for common diseases.

To imply that these “discoveries” are somehow different from creative acts in the arts is to miss the human dimension of scientific discovery that is akin to Michelangelo’s “discovering” the Pietà hidden in a slab of marble! The challenges, feelings, emotions, and rewards of those engaged in scientific research and technological advancement are as central to our work as they are to the characters in a Tom Stoppard play. We, as a society, need to realize that science and technology are human activities, done by humans, with human ambitions and desires and a commitment to human communication.

Our culture is made up of many forms of expression. Let’s celebrate all of them!

Peter R. Reczek, Ph.D.
Buffalo, N.Y.

Perhaps most interesting to me is the look at architect Frank Gehry’s first sketches of the (gorgeous) New World Symphony building in Miami. Gehry is probably the best living architect. But… how do I put this? These drawings are no good. If I saw them out of context, I’d think the first was an obsessive but arthritic bride’s dream wedding cake, and the second would, of course, be a child’s rendering of a UFO. How an idea starts out like this, as a jagged assortment of black lines, and becomes that building, is beyond me. But Gehry’s work speaks for itself.

Mike Mullen
Excerpt from a Minnesota Daily blog post

Paul Simon [said]: “I haven’t spoken to any of the other guys of my generation about how they do it. I’ve known Bob Dylan for a long time and I’ve known Paul McCartney for a long time, but we’ve never talked about songwriting.”

They’ve never talked about it?!? It has literally never come up?? What is it, like talking about having a crush on your sister? What exactly is the problem? Why would three of the greatest songwriters of the last 50 years, who are actually friends, never talk about the craft of songwriting with each other? Are they afraid that they’d jinx each other? Is every songwriter just living in mortal terror that the last song he wrote will be the last song he will ever write?

Nick Jaina
Excerpt from a Willamette Week blog post

With the release of “Project: First Drafts,” May’s special report on how genius works, The Atlantic asked readers to summarize their creative inspiration in 140 characters or fewer on Twitter. Gather experiences, process life, steep purposefully, trust intuition, create, repeat.
@DynamicInaction

giant block of ice. Waiting a drip-at-a-[t]ime for enough to melt to fill a glass. some days are warmer than others.
@romancandleband

Put aside what you’ve been taught and ignore all filters. Only the crazy ideas are worth chasing.
@RACINE

Tea & biscuits. List. Tea. Tidy up. Stare at list. Tea. Write. Supper. Cry. Read someone else. Moan. Tea. Write. Sleep deep.
@shonamain

Desire something that doesn’t exist. Work until it does. Refine. Refine. Refine. Repeat.
@CatChew

Dreams often drive my first drafts - ideas come through them - then lack of sleep drives the rest
@NettieHartsock

Absorb. Zone out. Epiphany.
@command_n

1. be in the grip of a devastating crush 2. 10pm run 3. pot of coffee 4. song on repeat 5. work until dawn
@amykate75

Literary Debate Is Still Alive

Stephen King’s short story in the May Atlantic, “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive,” sparked a vibrant online discussion about literature, class, and society. Some commenters criticized King for painting the story’s two poor, overweight mothers with too broad a brush; they insisted that authors should write only what they know. “If you haven’t been there,” said ravensNBNP, “you cannot understand it.” In response, King points out that he has been there.

Has Mr. King been rich too long, so that his eye and ear for the varieties of human nature have failed him? These are generic poor, fat, stupid people, not individuals. It was hard to tell the difference between Brenda and Jasmine.

llegault25

The reality is that real people exist behind the fiction, and it’s the (good) writer’s job to recognize this and seek to reflect this complexity in their writing. I’m not saying that writers cannot write from different perspectives, but perhaps King should stick to exploring the complexities of his own existence, before venturing to expose the complexities of other people’s existences—which he seems unable to comprehend.

Nichole Coates

The stereotypical depiction is necessary in short stories because with short stories, the writer must appeal to the reader (emotionally) with fewer words. These characters may have been fleshed out in a longer piece such as a novel, but with short fiction you must use all your resources, including stereotypical, less-than-admirable qualities in a human being.

That is not the intent of fiction—to draw on the character. It is the intent to draw on the ironies of life. King deserves credit for giving us some more of what we enjoy in his style and signature writing.

Fiction is truth in a made-up story.

Diane Carlisle

“The poor” are silenced by the stereotypes projected onto them from the dominant culture, and King doesn’t offer anything in the characters to counter these assumptions. Be sentimental about it if you like, but if he depends on clichés rather than seeking to depict people authentically, he’s perpetuating, rather than dismantling, these notions of the poor. King has proved that he understands the poor only as an observer.

Dieter Huneryager

Stephen King replies: These are people I’ve known and worked with all my life. One wonders if those crying “stereotype” have had the same opportunity. The idea that I am living in some sort of ivory tower and have no contact with the real world is a stereotype in itself. Those who want to meet my ladies need only to come to Bangor. Their counterparts live here, work here (or look for work here), go to AA meetings here, and live the life. I live it with them. Why would I not? I grew up with them.

The Short Story Returns

Atlantic readers happily welcomed the return of regularly scheduled fiction to our pages, marked by stories from Stephen King and Mary Morris in the May Culture Issue.

When The Atlantic abandoned its long-standing practice of publishing fiction in each issue several years back, I wrote one of the few letters to the editor I’ve written in my 30-plus years, expressing my displeasure. I’m glad you’re bringing it back. I’m delighted you listened to Stephen King, and thankful he added his voice to mine and many others’.

Dave Clement
Cary, N.C.

The stories by Mary Morris and Stephen King were simply a joyous experience. Thank you for publishing great “stories” rather than “works of fiction.”

Jeremy Hampton
Lexington, Ky.

Delayed Gratification

The warm response to fiction came as no surprise, considering how disheartened readers were to see it go. Patricia Kozma, from Fairfield, Connecticut, said it best in a July/August 2005 letter to the editor:

Fiction (like any art form) works in conjunction with the culture that produces it—the culture that responds to it and shapes it. Positioning a select work of fiction in the midst of the other kinds of reportage and human-interest features helps create a cultural context in a way that omitting that material does not. I hope you reconsider.

On the Other Hand, You Can't Please Everybody

Imagine my surprise to find fiction within the May issue. What a waste of space. I read one-third, then into the blue box. Fiction does not belong here.

Tim Markow
Oakville, Ontario

Campaigning in Iowa

In May, Joshua Green profiled Bob Vander Plaats, a political strategist in Iowa who “hopes to use the prospective Republican candidates, and the national media that cover them, to amplify” his anti-gay-marriage message.

My first reaction to “The Caucus Kingmaker” was dismay. When will these bigots just go away? But then I thought, What a potential boon for Democrats. If Vander Plaats succeeds in bullying all Republican presidential hopefuls into supporting his campaign to reinstate Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the Republicans will be painted as bigots, outside the mainstream of public opinion. Personally, I hope he is wildly successful.

Susan Piper
Portland, Ore.

Vander Plaats’s anti-gay-marriage campaign is largely funded by the American Family Association, which the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as a hate group. It is too often overlooked that when Vander Plaats speaks for a minority of Iowans, he is bankrolled by out-of-state dollars. Very conservative Iowans may dominate the Republican caucuses, but they do not fund this movement.

Joe E. Smith
Des Moines, Iowa

Revisiting Larkin

An English professor at the University of Hull takes issue with Christopher Hitchens’s “The Impossible Man” (May), a review of Anthony Thwaite’s Letters to Monica, which details the poet Philip Larkin’s complicated relationship with Monica Jones.

Hitchens’s assertion that Philip and Monica were finally forced into cohabitation by “decrepitude on his part and dementia on hers” is satisfyingly alliterative and supercilious. But it is wrong. Monica first moved in with Philip in 1983 so that he could care for her after an attack of shingles. Far from being decrepit, he was still at work each day in Hull University’s library until weeks before his death, in 1985. When I met Monica in 1999, she showed no sign of dementia.

Hitchens’s conclusion that this deeply committed, even tragic, relationship was “almost passionless” is laughably wide of the mark. After catching up on work in the library one Sunday morning in 1966, 20 years after they had first met, Larkin was suddenly “seized with a desire” to see Monica. He traveled 50 miles toward Leicester before realizing he had not sufficient money for petrol. When this “distraught and barren four-decade relationship” finally came to an end with Philip’s death, Monica spent her remaining 16 years grieving inconsolably. All of his clothes, books, and records remained in their places as the dust collected under the carpets, until she herself died in 2001.

Hitchens’s insulting verdict on Thwaite’s collection is that it scores “an accidental success as a period piece.” I hope your readers will smell the various rats in his patronizing account, and go to the volume itself.

James Booth
Co-editor, About Larkin

Christopher Hitchens replies: James Booth’s misreading can’t be entirely my fault. I had nothing but praise for Anthony Thwaite, and had I only preceded the word accidental with the word also (because his book is not intended as a period piece), this might have been even more obvious.

On other points I recommend Andrew Motion’s exhaustive biography. “Decrepit” understates Larkin’s own description of himself. Booth’s definition of “passion”—impulse canceled by thrift—is much funnier than he can have intended it to be.

We Like Their Chances

Each week, The Washington Post Magazine sets up a blind date for a pair of readers. Two 20-somethings in April really seemed to hit it off.

7:30 p.m., Persimmon, Bethesda

BECKY: I got to the restaurant at 7 and was at the table, reading.

YURI: I got there maybe five minutes early. She was reading The Atlantic. I liked that.

Log

Here are the June articles generating the most response:

Most e-mails:
“The Failure of American Schools,” by Joel Klein

Most online comments:
“The Tragedy of Sarah Palin,” by Joshua Green

Most media coverage:
“Danger: Falling Tyrants,” by Jeffrey Goldberg

To contribute to The Conversation, please e-mail letters@theatlantic.com. In­clude your full name, city, and state.

Correction: “The Failure of American Schools” (June) identified Robert Schwartz as the dean of Harvard’s education school. Schwartz is the academic dean.

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