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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

Talent Is Abundant: ‘New Yorker’ Covers Edition

Talent is abundant; opportunity is not.

May 3, 2021
 
 

There are a few mantras I live by:

  • Run toward opportunity rather than away from problems.
  • Writing is thinking, and the base unit of writing is the idea.
  • Never start a land war in Asia … and …
  • Talent is abundant; opportunity is not.

There was a recent object example on the abundance of talent in a viral Twitter thread of the efforts of the students in Tomer Hanuka’s third-year illustration class at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Hanuka asked the students to create works that illustrate life beyond the pandemic in the style of covers for the New Yorker magazine.

They are amazing. They are, in fact, so convincing that the magazine title on the illustrations had to be changed from “The New Yorker” to “The New World” so they wouldn’t be mistaken for the genuine item.

Given the incredibly high quality of what The New Yorker produces for its covers, and the high prominence of many of its illustrators, it would be easy to believe that producing a cover is a rare skill, but the work of Tomer Hanuka’s third-year undergraduates shows that when guided by an experienced, caring instructor, work as skilled and beautiful as the most accomplished professionals' can be done by students.

My original post on the abundance of talent reacted against the contention of editor in chief of The Atlantic Jeffrey Goldberg’s contention that the 10,000-word magazine cover story was something only a relatively small number of writers could produce. In Goldberg’s words, “It’s really, really hard to write a 10,000-word cover story. There are not a lot of journalists in America who can do it. The journalists in America who do it are almost exclusively white males. What I have to do -- and I haven’t done this enough yet -- is again about experience versus potential. You can look at people and be like, well, your experience is writing 1,200-word pieces for the web and you’re great at it, so good going!”

Goldberg’s contention is not actually true. Yes, it is hard to write a 10,000-word cover story. However, the number of journalists and writers who could do it is in the 10s if not 100s of thousands or more.[1]

Example: in a third-year advanced composition class at Clemson, I had students use the semester to produce a feature-length article of the subject of their own choosing that required the integration of primary and secondary research, along with firsthand observation and interviews. Because we didn’t have sufficient time to draft and revise given mine was one course out of five, I was less interested in the final product so much as marching them through a full array of the ways writers gather research and integrate them into a whole.

Nonetheless, even though almost none of the students had any interest in writing as a career, many of them produced drafts that showed plenty of promise as ultimately publishable work. Imagine what some student with a strong desire to write could achieve.

Convincing the world that talent is rare and it takes a special person to recognize it and bring it to full flower, and that there’s only a handful of places where talent can be properly displayed, is in the interests of people who keep the gates, but it is both a lie and damaging to students who are less likely to have access to opportunity.

It also constrains our notions of what kind of package excellence comes in as the people who hold these positions of power tend to have pretty fixed notions on that front.

Are Amy Chua’s Yale Law students truly the best in all the country and therefore deserving of a disproportionate number of federal and Supreme Court clerkships, or is there a (barely) hidden patronage system at work?

I’m certain this kind of system played a direct role in my own matriculation to grad school, where the one undergraduate professor who took an interest in me as a student and person recommended I apply to a graduate program at a school I’d never heard of (McNeese St. University) where his friend (who had just won a Pulitzer Prize) happened to be the sole arbiter of which fiction writers were admitted.

Now, I like to believe that I had demonstrated the talent to be deserving of a slot, but there’s little doubt that a recommendation letter (and maybe even a call?) from a friend was a factor in me being chosen as one of the six out of 300 or so applicants that year. I got lucky to have an opportunity intersect with my talent and that my talent looked familiar to the people with power over my fate.

I’ve witnessed firsthand the limits of this system, as I never achieved the status that would enable me to provide this kind of opportunity to my students. When teaching introductory fiction writing at the College of Charleston, I would have incredibly talented, mind-blowingly good students with far more promise than I ever had at that age. I would do my best to help them develop their interests and abilities, but I would also lament that they had the bad luck to go to a place where one of their creative writing teachers had no juice inside the system that would allow them to potentially pursue a path that allowed them to explore their promise.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about how elite spaces need to expand capacity, which is fine, I suppose, but I’m far more interested in figuring out structures that allow the excellence that already exists in nonelite spaces to be recognized and advanced. The notion that because a college rejects a lot of people it must have some kind of monopoly on talent is silly.

In my view, the first step in this process is to properly resource the institutions where less recognized students are already doing their work. This would be far preferrable to “cloning” institutions that currently serve to reify existing privileges. Do we really think a mega-Stanford moves the needle in any important way? Why make more of an institution that is demonstrably not concerned with fostering diversity of class and race when we have existing institutions that are getting the job done on this front with a fraction of the resources?

One salutary note from my perspective is that arguments for doubling the size of the “highly rejective” are a step toward recognizing the structural nature of the problem we’re facing.

I just think that if we want to fix the structures of higher ed, we should start at the base, where our public institutions reside, rather than the tippy top, who are doing just fine all by themselves.

(I got a whole book about it.)


[1] Like, even I could do it.

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