Saturday, July 17

Child prodigies

On Slate, Ann Hulbert writes about child prodigies in the literary world:
In the realm of child prodigies, young writers have historically been a source of special curiosity. That's not just because they're a rarity in the ranks of recognized child marvels, though they are; they're easily outnumbered by whizzes in the more formally structured fields of music, math, chess, and now computers, where clear levels of expertise and standards of excellence prevail (and life experience isn't crucial). It's also because, compared to their wonkier counterparts, they're harder to pigeonhole as awe-inspiring cases of pre-wired wunderkinder. How much of the literary impulse is innate, and how much is imitative? What's naive insight, and what counts as real wisdom, and who's judging? In prompting questions like these, creative-writing prodigies force us to focus not just on the mysteries of natural genius, but also on the cultural genesis and uses (and abuses) of precocity. These days you don't need to have, or be, a bona fide prodigy to find that topic unusually relevant. Rearing children in the shadow of the current "superkid" ideal is enough to stir up confusions in the whole family: Are kids flowering thanks to all the intensive enrichment (Baby Einstein videos are only the start), or is childhood disappearing under the pressure of fast-track expectations?
There is an attached stigma to growing up to these prodigies. Offhand, what sets in is desperation. I am reminded of the quiz show kid in Magnolia, who grows up gay and can't even pay for dental work. (Not that these two things are directly related.) Or I think Macaulay Culkin, posti-Home Alone, with an adolescence was marked by streaks of wild hair and an overdomineering stage father, ending in an early marriage and obscurity. I'm also reminded of Aiza Seguerra, whose life story was aired in Magpakailaman last Thursday. At least, she seems to have climbed out of obscurity and back to the radio charts. But that's more the exception than the rule. If the potentials for genius have not been fulfilled, which is almost always the case, then the more painful thing is realizing that not everyone grows up to have a happy ending.

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