Thursday, 11 December 2014

Grace versus Grunt - Cathy Butler

Most people would agree that talent and hard work are both important ingredients in any artistic or sporting career, and indeed in many other endeavours. But which is more important? And which is more to be admired?

It’s a difficult thing to measure, but my impression is that in British culture there’s been a gradual shift in emphasis over my lifetime, from talent to hard work. For example, in the early 1970s my favourite tennis player was Ilie Năstase, and the main reason I liked him was that his play was so beautiful and imaginative. It didn’t matter that he never won Wimbledon – that was part of what made him rakishly attractive, like a top button left artfully undone. Then, around 1974, I was surprised to hear another player grunt loudly and effortfully as he hit the ball. The grunter was Jimmy Connors, a hardworking but unlovely player, who did win Wimbledon, twice. (Both were soon to be eclipsed by Swedish Jesus-lookalike Bjorn Borg, who successfully combined grace and power.) Connors’s grunts were unfavourably received by old-school BBC commentators such as Dan Maskell, ostensibly because they had the potential to distract his opponents, but I think the real reason was that it made his play look altogether too much like hard work. No doubt Borg and Năstase practised, but they did it out of sight: their performances were cool iceberg tips, never mind what lay below the surface. Today, by contrast, all sportspeople are expected to give 110% as a bare minimum, and Andy Murray’s matches, for all their skill, frequently recall the boxing scene in Cool Hand Luke. If you’re not visibly suffering, you don't deserve to win.

Amongst writers too hard work is admired, but it's also very slightly suspect.  We may praise Anthony Trollope for getting up at 5.30am each morning and writing 3,000 words before leaving for his day’s work at the Post Office (if he finished a novel before 8.30 he would take a fresh sheet of paper and start on the next); but our admiration is not unmitigated: his routine sounds anything but inspiring or inspired.

In The Courtier (1528) Baldassare Castiglione coined the useful term sprezzatura to denote the seemingly effortless skill with which a courtier should be able to ride, fence, dance, play an instrument, and so on. Its employment as a positive description is interesting, for the word comes from the Italian for “contempt” or “negligence”, qualities we don't normally admire. But aren't masters of sprezzatura merely con merchants, working feverishly behind the scenes to acquire the skills they pretend to have naturally?

More fundamentally, why should we praise people for having talent in the first place? While some people certainly have more natural ability than others (no matter how hard I train I will never be able to run as fast as Usain Bolt), surely being given a head start by your DNA doesn't make you praiseworthy, any more than winning the lottery or inheriting a business empire makes you a hardworking entrepreneur. Anyway, why would we want to look like someone who’s never had to try? Aren't the admirable people the ones who do a lot with the resources they have?

I suspect that somewhere at the back of all this there’s a need to feel that some people are simply special, touched by the gods, and that the ease with which they produce great work is a measure of that specialness. Hence Heminge and Condell's compliment to Shakespeare on producing great plays while seldom blotting a line. It feels good to know that such people exist, even if they aren't us.

It's true that the subjective experience of writers is often that the best lines, the best ideas, appear to fall fully-formed into one’s lap, without apparent effort. However, remember the anecdote about the consultant who fixed a problem in a factory by turning a single lever – the work of a moment – and charged a £1,000 fee. When the factory owner questioned a bill of £1,000 for a moment’s work, the consultant replied that the fee was for the decades of experience and training that meant she could fix the problem in a moment. Perhaps it’s like that for writers: those “free” inspirations have actually been earned through years of grunt and grind.

Or, as a golfer once famously put it, “The more I practise, the luckier I get.”


Maureen Kincaid Speller said...

I have, oddly,been thinking a lot about grunting ever since I went to see Mr Turner, in which Turner seems, for the most part, to communicate in grunts. Very expressive grunts, it is true, and Timothy Spall knows how to imbue a grunt with a good deal of meaning, but I found myself wondering what it was that Spall and Leigh were trying to tell us. Turner is portrayed as being ill at ease in many social situations, and there is an implication that he retreats into grunts or into silence as a result. By contrast, when he is happy or moved by something, he is very voluble. Yet, it seemed to me that Spall's portrayal also suggested that Turner understood his own reputation very well, and as a result perhaps manipulated his own presentation. 'You can have a genius who grunts, and like it', he seemed to say, 'or you can have a socially polished wit who is a less gifted painter. Which do you want?' And somewhere along the way the grunt becomes a way of creating a space in which Turner can actually get on and work.

Catherine Butler said...

And somewhere along the way the grunt becomes a way of creating a space in which Turner can actually get on and work.

That's a good tactic! I wonder if a writer would be less likely to get away with it, though? Perhaps throwing blobs of paint at people would win a little privacy?

Clémentine Beauvais said...

The more I read about talent and genius, the less I believe in talent and genius! Or at least, I'm very much of the opinion now that moments of 'inspiration' are a combination of receptive mood, enjoyment, and unbeknownst to ourselves reaping the results of previous training and hard work.

One funny thing with writing is that the passages you write when feeling the most exhilarated and 'inspired' are not necessarily the ones readers will feel most stimulated or interested by. it's always a shock to me when someone says 'Oh, I really liked chapter 8' and I remember how uninspired I felt when writing it, the amount of unrewarding hard work that went into it and how entirely artificial that effort felt at the time...

Susan Price said...

I'm not much interested in god-given talent or genius either. And I agree, Clementine, I've had the experience of finding that something I've drudged over was more successful than something I wrote while more 'inspired.'

But my experience is that there IS something more to our 'talent' than mere hard work. It emerges from 'the subconcious' for want of a better term - the same place dreams come from, and a place where we're not entirely in control.

I don't think it's simply a matter of the 'subconcious' storing things we've forgotten either. It puts together images, ideas that we would never think of putting together - it makes leaps we don't see it's possible to make.

Often, I think, what we call 'talent', in writing, at least, is a greater ability to let things come up from the subconscious - a greater awareness of, or ease with, dreams.

I've been reading Jenny Alexander's book, Writing in the House of Dreams, on this very subject, and it's brilliant. It struck so many chords with me.

Stroppy Author said...

I'm afraid I do believe in talent and genius, Clem, because there seems no reason to suppose - with Cathy - that creativity or intelligence should be any less inheritable than muscle power. But that hard-to-define creativity and intelligence might *be* the ability to see connections where others don't see them, and the ability to see and willingness to seize opportunities that pass others by. It's possible that those abilities are nurtured by good parenting/schooling but it would appear that they can emerge even with awful parenting and schooling (I can think of examples).

There is, of course, nothing to feel proud of in being born creative/sport/intelligent, but a lot to applaud in exploiting those talents through hard work.

I've always been a fan of Castiglione's sprezzatura, and it was greatly emulated by my contemporaries at college as soon as we got to that bit of the course. It became de rigeur to be seen partying and playing cricket (or whatever) and not starting your essay until 10 hours before the deadline. It was largely an excuse to get lots of partying in, but also a desire not to be seen to take oneself too seriously. So it wasn't 'look I have innate talent' it was, 'look, I'm a well-rounded person who won't obsess about academic success.' That was a lot easier to do when education was free, of course.

Gillian Polack said...

This reminds me of something that went round certain circles of my undergrad university in 1979-80. It was considered better form to do no more than 2 hours work a day and achieve a First from it, because someone suggested that this was done in Oxford (this is one of the many reasons why I think Australia is not past its post-colonial stage yet). It was also considered almost unachievable. These rumours led to some very unhappy undergrads. It also, however, led to a bunch of Oxford-emulators (whether this as the practice at Oxford is immaterial, we were all reading Brideshead and many of us were misinterpreting it in quite special ways) and some of *them* worked out how to learn more cleverly. This meant a much smaller workload for the same effect and several Firsts were indeed gained with no more than 2 hours work a day. However, some extraordinary planning and thinking went into those 2 hours. A few years later, some of us compared notes. What worked for university study (where outcomes were measured clearly) got us into trouble in the workplace, where the grunts and the practice were as important to the work culture as outcomes. If one finished one's policy paper too soon, one suffered the ignominy of having it sent back to be done again even if one's supervisor hadn't bothered reading it. In other words, it's all cultural and very relative.

Catherine Butler said...

Gillian, on 'good form' I love this apposite lines from Peter and Wendy, from the tortured mind of Captain Hook:

Had the bo'sun good form without knowing it, which is the best form of all?

He remembered that you have to prove you don't know you have it before you are eligible for Pop.

Gillian Polack said...

I'm pretty sure in my day uni kids (from the establishment places) tried to emulate good form while knowing it was not actually achievable for an Australian.

Catherine Butler said...

That's a pretty good definition of the cultural cringe, isn't it?

Gillian Polack said...

Cultural Cringe R Us. We were getting better, but then we got the current government and now we have cultural cringe and government cringe. It really doesn't help that Abbott is a UK import. (And I ought to be clear, the group I was so carefully observing at an establishment uni so many years ago was a very establishment group. Breaking down the cringe has really come from other places than that particular one.)

C.J.Busby said...

It's very English, isn't it, that desire to appear to get top marks without any effort. And despising those who puff and sweat. Goes with the elevation of amateurism in sport, and self-deprecation (as in, "oh yes, I know a little about that" meaning, I wrote the definitive book on the subject)... I can't help finding that sort of self-deprecation attractive (cultural habitus, hard to shake) - and deep down I sort of believe that if you can do it without sweating you're 'better' than if you have to sweat for it. Terrible - and I know they are doing lots in schools now to shake that sort of attitude because it's very counterproductive for children to grow up thinking that innate ability is more important than effort.

Mia Francis said...

I think talent and hard work is secondary and destiny is the first one. Without destiny how much effort you put all is a waste.