Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Two of a kind

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Paul McCartney and John Lennon

Over the last few weeks, it’s been hard to avoid Joshua Wolf Shenk, an essayist and author whose new book, Powers of Two: Seeking the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, has received prominent play in such outlets as The Atlantic and the New York Times. At first glance, Shenk’s argument is compelling, even seductive. Meaningful creative work, he says, isn’t the creation of solitary geniuses, but of interpersonal exchanges, either through explicit collaboration or more subtle dialogues often centering on pairs. Pointing to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, he reminds us that even if many of their greatest songs were written largely by one or the other, all were born out of a cycle of mutual competition and reaction: “Penny Lane” is part of a conversation with “Strawberry Fields Forever,” to the point where it’s hard to imagine either one without its counterpart on the flip side. As different as Paul and John may have been, neither was ever as good without the other, and their collaboration was greater than the sum of its parts. “The lone genius,” Shenk concludes in the Times, “is a myth that has outlived its usefulness.”

Well, maybe. Like many authors with a thesis—and a book—to sell, Shenk occasionally overstates his own argument, sometimes in ways that quietly undermine his most valuable points. He notes, correctly, that Shakespeare’s plays emerged from an atmosphere of collaboration: “Surviving records show three or four or even five playwrights receiving pay for a single production, according to the Columbia professor James Shaprio.” This is true enough, but it ignores the inconvenient fact that Shakespeare’s work still feels qualitatively different, to most thoughtful readers, from other works produced by an identical process. If collaboration was the most powerful factor involved, we’d find masterpieces on the level of Hamlet from the likes of John Ford, Thomas Middleton, and John Webster, all of whom worked in the exact same way. Instead, they gave us a body of plays that are remembered today, to the extent that they’re read at all, because of their proximity to Shakespeare. And when it comes to the origins of that Shakespearian difference, we’re left, frustratingly, with that “mythical” lone genius. (It’s unclear, incidentally, who is supposed to be promulgating that particular myth these days; if anything, modern critical theory and literary analysis is fixated to a fault on social and historical contexts.)

The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

Shenk muddies his case further by failing to distinguish—at least in the excerpts and articles I’ve read—between real creative pairs, like Lennon and McCartney, and instances in which an essentially solitary artist or thinker benefited from a confidant or trusted critic. He approvingly cites the example of Michele Besso, whom Einstein called “the best sounding board in Europe,” and laments the fact that “most Vera Nabokovs never get acknowledged.” But nobody seriously doubts that even the most idiosyncratic geniuses need to work their ideas out with others, or that many great works of art have been rooted in a productive friendship or marriage. We often don’t know what we think about something until we hear what we have to say about it, and it’s a blessing to find someone who pushes us to be more thoughtful or original than we’d be on our own. Yet this all comes down to saying that geniuses, like everybody else, are happier among friends than alone, and that truly original thinkers will seek out companions who bring out their best. It’s possible, as Shenk says, this fact deserves more emphasis. But in the end, it just boils down to the same mystery as before.

To be clear, I like a lot of what Shenk is saying. Creativity is about combinations, or the movement between extremes, and we often find fruitful pairings of ideas when we talk things out with those we trust. But while it might be tempting to champion the social spaces where such fertilization can take place, like “the crowd-sourced Wikipedia or the writer’s room at The Daily Show,” it’s only part of the story, and not even the most interesting part. No truly great novel has ever emerged from collaboration: it’s a process that makes considerable demands on an individual’s ability to tolerate solitude, introspection, and meticulous work in private. We’ve all known great talkers and dreamers who wove spellbinding patterns of ideas in conversation but seemed incapable of setting them down in a more permanent form, something that demands, alas, that we spend a lot of time alone. Collaboration has its place, and it certainly fascinates me, but it’s a mistake to call it “a more truthful model” than solitary genius, or to imply that we’ve all been willfully ignoring the context in which great work arises. It’s another promising approach to the central unknown of the creative life, but it only reminds us that creativity—together or alone—will do whatever it takes to live another day.

2 Responses

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  1. Thanks. Pleased to engage with your thoughtful blog. I’ll explore further. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox.

    Thom Hickey

    July 22, 2014 at 4:10 pm

  2. Thanks—glad you liked it!


    July 22, 2014 at 8:35 pm

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