Opal Mehta and the Prodigy Puzzle, Redux (another long post)
A few months ago on this blog, I wrote about the dearth of literary prodigies. Mathematicians? Musicians? Sure. But you don't see a lot of teens and early 20-somethings cranking out great literature. I said this was partly due to young people not having experienced the full range of human emotions. But then I was happy to learn a 17-year-old Indian-American woman named Kaavya Viswanathan had written a funny, smart book called "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life" about the trials of getting into Harvard. She got a $500,000 3-book contract (the stuff we writers dream about, by the way).
Well, the story appears to be too good to true. Viswanathan lifted whole passages from another young adult novel, then claimed she'd merely "internalized" them from reading the other author's books so many times. Disturbing to me -- though not to others -- is that she shares the book's copyright with a book packager. Apparently, even the idea of this book was not entirely Viswanathan's own. A company helped shape it to be more marketable, and took a chunk of the payment. Normally, an author's agent and publisher help with this, so the fact that her publisher enlisted a book packager implies that they were really pushing to get a young author out there when perhaps Viswanathan's career would have benefitted from waiting (Or not. Many authors would kill to get on the Today show, even if it was because they were accused of plaigerizing).
Anyway, I've been reading about Viswanathan/Opal Mehta at the same time that I saw an Oprah show yesterday on "Little Geniuses." Some of the kids really were. A 16-year-old girl was able to compose piano pieces based on a random series of notes chosen by Oprah. Now, there are rules to that game which makes it less mind-blowing than on first glance, but it's still very impressive.
Others just seemed, well, as well-packaged as Opal Mehta wound up being to get into Harvard. A young man named Noah McCullough was trotted out as a potential presidential candidate in 2032. He's actually written a book (published by Random House) of presidential trivia. He gave pretty vague answers to the political questions, which had Oprah saying she'd vote for him (in reality, he did a political tour last year that was arranged by a Social Security privatization group -- something I support, but which I'm fairly sure Oprah does not -- but hey, why grill a kid on his actual positions?).
Anyway, he reminded me a lot of a kid I went to high school with. This kid had also calculuated the date he intended to become president, and when exactly he could run for Congress. He wore blazers and campaigned in the halls, etc. I Googled my old classmate for the fun of it the other day. He's a corporate lawyer in Illinois. Nothing wrong with that at all. But we've passed the date when he could become a Congressman. Indeed, he could be getting on people's radar screens to run for president in 2012. He isn't.
Saying you want to do something as a kid, and having people humor you or trot you out as the "face" of saving Social Security is one thing. Actually doing it as an adult is another. Likewise, young McCullough may want to run in 2032 as a 37-year-old, but if there's a popular Republican incumbent then, his party won't allow him to. This is the nature of looking at the harsh moment when dreams have to become reality, when one no longer inhabits the when-I-grow-up world. I worry McCullough will hit puberty, get other interests, use his Social Security tour as a package to get into a good college, then encounter a dozen other kids who will campaign just as hard for freshman class president as he does. He'll lose to the kid from a school that sent the most kids to his particular university. And McCullough will say the heck with politics and wind up working for McKinsey.
I have mixed feelings about all this. I truly want bright young kids to have big opportunities. I also know that prodigies stuck in the limelight have a way of flaming out. The problem is that this winds up lending credence to the idea that prodigies flame out, and thus they shouldn't be given special opportunities when they are little.
But gifted kids need to be challenged regardless of what they'll accomplish later in life. That's a matter of simple fairness, not just investing in the future. I'm thrilled that McCullough has been able to indulge his love of presidential trivia. I wish more kids could dive so deeply into something they love. And I was thrilled that Viswanathan got a chance to write. But now any other 17-year-old coming to a publisher with a novel will be greeted with a cold stare. All because some packagers wanted to make a quick buck and pulled a novel out of this young woman quicker than she could actually write it herself, and because a publisher wanted to get a fresh new face out there so badly they didn't vet the manuscript.
I think we need less talk of prodigies, and more of meeting kids' needs. When all highly gifted kids have a chance to satisfy their passions and learn as quickly as they desire, then so-called "prodigies" will be less of media events. They'll just be kids doing what they love. Then, all talented 17-year-old writers will have access to grown-up writers who can help them improve their craft and perhaps try for publication if their pieces are good. The few whose schools or families figure out how to play the game won't be delivered to book publishers keen on making a splash. They won't be seen as newsworthy solely because of their age. And, as a result, we'll have fewer flame-outs.