A Wonderful Recognition for Ta-Nehisi Coates

I’m against the idea of “genius.” To me it’s like talking about “naturals” in sports, or speculation in a frat house about whether a woman is a “perfect ten.”

Mozart: boy genius. Where was MacArthur when he needed them?

Of course true outlier talent exists: Mozart in one category, Usain Bolt in another. But in virtually all human endeavor, the relevant question (according to me) is not how much raw ability someone supposedly has. Rather it is where, along that person’s own range from lackluster to outstanding performance, he or she has the determination, patience, open-mindedness, character, curiosity — and, yes, opportunity — to end up.

Because I think that almost anyone is capable of better work than he or she is usually called on to deliver, I think that talk about “genius” or “naturals” mis-places the emphasis. It directs attention toward something we can’t really measure and is not within any individual’s control, namely theoretical levels of talent, and away from what matters more and what we can encourage: actual performance and achievement, day by day and over the years.

Therefore I never call the MacArthur grants “the genius awards” and dislike references to them as such. (By dislike I mean, fingernails-on-blackboard. I will say that Yoni Appelbaum gives a manful and effective defense of a certain kind of “genius” in a note today.) I view them instead as both recognitions, and encouragements: recognitions of exceptional work so far, and encouragements for even more.

In those two important senses — recognizing achievements to date, and offering material and emotional encouragement for even more to come — the MacArthur team could not have done better than with their choice of our wonderful Atlantic friend and colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates as one of the latest group of winners. His achievement is extraordinary, and his potential is unlimited.

I’m sure this news seems more exciting than the usual MacArthur slate because it includes someone from our small, close professional family. But I think the qualities Yoni Appelbaum so clearly explains about Ta-Nehisi’s work — his absolute honesty with readers in both an intellectual and an emotional sense, the big-heartedness that extends to a big-mindedness as he wrestles with issues, his fearlessness — make a public far beyond our little family feel personally connected with his life, thoughts, and journey.

It would lessen those traits to call them “genius,” and is beside the point anyway. They represent literary and intellectual ambition of a very high order, and that is what so many people are delighted to see MacArthur recognizing.

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After grinding out these earnest thoughts over shaky wifi while on a train, I see that Jeffrey Goldberg and Ta-Nehisi have done a comic riff on the “genius award” theme. Maybe between their making fun of it, and my tut-tutting about it, we can start edging it into boiled-frog territory.

Call it what we will, this is a great and deserved honor for Ta-Nehisi. Congratulations to him and the other winners.