Was Barbara Cartland a genius? And are you?

In brief: yes; and I’m sorry, but probably no. Let me explain; and let me assure you, I do have a point.

Barbara Cartland, the English romance novelist, published 723 books during her lifetime, and when she died in 2000 she left behind 160 more completed manuscripts. In my writing book, I describe her as a genius: over her writing career she averaged about one book a month, which means she turned out several thousand words of publication-ready prose every single day.

Now, a colleague recently took issue with my “genius” description, arguing that “Barbara Cartland wasn’t a genius; she was a prolific writer who produced formulaic romance novels”. I can see the argument: most of Cartland’s books were romances, and from my limited study* they do seem a bit formulaic (although she also wrote plays, biographies, histories, and even an operetta). But here’s the thing: she wrote 983 of them, and perhaps none won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but they’ve sold over a billion copies to date (yes, that’s billion with a ‘b’, and it’s not a typo). There’s just no way you can produce that much writing, appealing to that many people, unless you’re a genius.

So why am I telling you about Barbara Cartland? I did promise I had a point, and here it comes. Cartland couldn’t possibly have produced her daily thousands of words without having it flow naturally, almost automatically. That’s not how it is when I write. I stop and start, delete and undelete, stare into space, and often try eight or ten different ways of writing a sentence before I settle on one. That is, I’m not a genius like Cartland, and I bet you aren’t either. How can I be sure? Because almost nobody is; nearly all of us are normal writers: labourers at a craft, not natural geniuses.

This distinction between genius and craft is something I didn’t understand early in my career. I didn’t think writing would be anything to worry about: after running my experiments I’d just sit down for a while – maybe an afternoon – and write the paper. I thought of writing as a straightforward mechanical exercise, simply recording on paper the things I’d learned as a result of my experiments. Oh, boy, was I wrong! I quickly learned that writing, for me, is very hard work, and for a while I thought that made me unusual among my scientific colleagues. But it doesn’t, of course. Writing is hard work for most of us. We are not Barbara Cartland, however much we might like to be**.

How did I get my foolish idea that writing was no big deal? In part, I had too much experience with routine, mechanical undergraduate writing (a Barbara Cartland romance might be formulaic, but it’s got nothing on a first-year organic chemistry lab report). But more importantly, I hadn’t had much opportunity to observe other scientists labouring at their writing craft. We mostly write alone, behind closed doors, and I think we’re all just a little embarrassed by our non-Cartland-ness. We may moan about writing deadlines, and revisions, and the cruel slights of reviewers, but we don’t tend to announce how hard writing is for us. This, of course, is self-reinforcing: because we don’t see others admitting they need to labour at the craft, we don’t realize that labour is normal, and so we’re loath to admit it ourselves. So yes, my idea (that writing was no big deal) was a foolish one; but I think it’s not an uncommon delusion.

Figuring out the truth about writing was a huge step for me. Once I understood that writing is a craft, and one that normal scientists labour at, I realized that it made sense to approach writing the same way I approach statistics, or experimental design, or computer programming. Writing is something I can decide to learn more about, for instance by reading guidebooks about it***. I can practice (by blogging, among other things). I can pay attention as I read to style I’d like to emulate. Perhaps most important of all, I can think consciously about my behaviour as a writer: I can ask myself what I’m doing as I labour to write (or as I avoid writing), and how I can work with my own psychology to make that behaviour more productive.

Barbara Cartland probably didn’t have to do any of those things; but then, she was a genius. I’m not, and understanding that has empowered me to take writing seriously and to labour to get better at my writing craft. You can too. Unless, that is, you’re (metaphorically) Barbara Cartland; but I’m betting that you’re not.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) August 4, 2015

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*Before mentioning her in my book, I read one of her romances and flipped the pages of a couple more, just so that I’d have some idea what I was talking about. I’m probably not her target demographic, but it wasn’t horrible. I’ve certainly read far, far worse, both in fiction and in scientific papers.

**Well, perhaps without the hats. And the heavy makeup. And the little dog.

***You should read some too. Especially mine. You didn’t think I was going to quit without another plug, did you?

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13 thoughts on “Was Barbara Cartland a genius? And are you?

  1. Kari

    Perfectly timed writeup! I’m going to teach a scientific writing course this fall and will have my students read this – thanks Steve!

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  2. jlundholm1970s

    Great post! I began taking writing seriously only during my master’s at York U when a prof wrote this on one of my paper: “You write like a bureaucrat who died in 1953”. These days, if I exceed the “undead functionary” standard with my writing, I’m happy.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I’ve encountered a couple that seemed Cartland-ish to me; but I think they are very rare. One in particular was part of what made me slow to realize that normal writers are like me; I saw him write apparently effortlessly, while I was struggling as a grad student to write a thesis! BUT: I’ve since realized that even those who seem to write effortlessly may be normal struggling writers too. We don’t usually see anyone else’s writing process – only their writing product. And a clear, smooth piece of text may have been generated in anguish (in my writing book I talk about Gustave Flaubert, who was the canonical example of writing anguish!)

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