In the 20 October 2008 New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes about prodigies and late bloomers, using Picasso and Cézanne as artistic examples, Jonathan Safran Foer and Ben Fountain as literary ones. Gladwell draws on research by David Galenson at the University of Chicago. He quotes Galenson as saying of late bloomers, “Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental. . . . Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods. These artists are perfectionists and are typically plagued by frustration at their inability to achieve their goal.”
And Gladwell says, “The Cézannes of this world bloom late not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition.”
It used to be that the model for medievalists was a late-blooming one, because there was so much to learn, so many languages, so many hundreds of years of critical responses to texts. At least in literature departments, the paradigm started to shift, during my career, to “must have a book for tenure, no matter your field.” I didn’t; I got tenure the old-fashioned way, for medievalists, with articles. But that left me feeling very much behind the eight-ball, with no book at mid-career.
Gladwell and Galenson make me feel better. I’ve been building my skills and improving my work.