The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Monday, November 01, 2010

Does quality of writing matter, anymore?

There was a time, when the world appreciated quality in writing. I am not sure that that is so, anymore. In the modern world, the worse the writing, the larger the audience. To become rich as a writer, it is almost a truism, that you should be really quite bad at writing.

Let us look at the world's richest writers. Dan Brown, for instance...a most formulaic writer, given to adopting ideas wholesale from prior works and calling them his own. JK Rowling...hmm...a most formulaic writer, given to adopting ideas wholesale from prior works and calling them her own. You get the idea. There really isn't much need to continue. Today, the writers who sell best are not, necessarily, the writers who write best.

Think of a really interesting writer, one with a style of their own, ideas of their own, a unique spirit, unlike any other. Ask the question, then: how do they make their living? I look at the ingenious tale teller, Jorge Luis Borges - and what do I see, but that he was a librarian for most of his life. Thus, his short stories, jewels of the intellect, though they are, could not have been remunerative enough to support him, stably. I, look, too, at the recent career of Martin Amis (whose work I have never read, but of whom many others speak kindly enough) and see a Professor of Creative Writing at Manchester University. Again, it seems to me that if his books were selling well enough and consistently enough, he would not have resorted to securing an academic position (unless he has a particular wish to train another generation of writers, of course). I could go on, but there are endless examples of sophisticated writers, who do not seem to be able, or to have been able, to earn a decent living from their works.

At the other end of the scale, however, there are quite a few writers, of no originality, little talent, but much marketing prowesss, who become almost miraculously wealthy. Stephenie Meyer, for instance, is not a particularly good writer, in the sense of able to use words in apt and novel ways, embodying fresh ideas. There is nothing fresh about undead Vampires. Yet, she is a very wealthy woman.

It seems that what the people of the world, that is the masses, want, is more of the same, but slightly different, please. They don't want to have to think about something new. They don't want to have to pause to understand. They don't want to have to read carefully because each sentence is saying something that has never been said before. No. They want to be lulled by the familiar, the "tried and tested", the cliche.

So, in the modern world, getting rich as a writer, involves not being a writer. To become rich from the written word, one must throw out freshness, originality, style and substance and seek out imitation, repetition and convention. At least, that seems to be the tale told by the lives of those who have become rich from writing. Generally speaking, they invented nothing and retold everything, with just enough vestige of the individual to be able to give the work a new title and copyright it as their own.

However, a writer with thoughts all of their own and a vision that is alike no other, may find it hard to find much of an audience. The problem, quite simply, is that relatively few people, these days, seem to want to think, in any way that might challenge them. Yet, a writer who writes works that are original in any way - be they in style, content or theme - cannot do but challenge his or her readers - and so they shall find fewer such readers. We live, basically, in intellectually lazy times. People aspire to be amused, but they do not aspire to be amusing. They seek to be passive recipients of entertainment, but are not, in themselves, entertaining. They wish to imbibe the thoughts of another, without provoking any thoughts of their own.

In short, the modern world seems an unpromising one, for any intellectual, of any kind, to thrive. The more original their work - of whatever kind, not just of writing - and the more sophisticated it is, the less likely it is to be able to earn them a good living. At least, this seems to be the pattern, when one looks at who gets rich from "creating" and who can never give up their day jobs.

The same pattern is clear, too, in the world of blogging. My blog, for instance, has its regular readers. I have readers from all over the world. Yet, one thing cannot be denied: I have far fewer readers, than far less accomplished writers. In Singapore, for instance, there is a young lady called Xiaxue, who has around 50,000 readers per day for her blog (which seems an awful lot, considering that, at the time of this claim, Singapore only had 4.5 million people...with perhaps only 500,000 of them in her target age group, for readership...suggesting that perhaps one in ten possible readers, WERE readers). Now, what is striking about this is how little her blog offers in the way of any intellectual substance. It consists of gossip, tales of boyfriends, scantily clad photos, accounts of shopping trips, fashion and even, her own encounters with plastic surgery. It is unadulterated pap. Yet, it sells. It is the blogging world equivalent of the best selling authors I have mentioned above. I very much doubt whether there are many bloggers writing in an intellectual or thoughtful manner, who manage to secure 10% of their entire target market, as readers. Let me correct that: "many" should read "ANY".

Although, the more sophisticated a writer, the smaller will be the audience, in one's own time, there is a hidden consolation in this situation, I think, for the better writers: their footprint, in time, is likely to be greater than one might expect. By this, I mean, that their long-term readership, in the decades, centuries and even millenia ahead, will be far, far greater, than that of their more debased and populist rivals.

No-one reads the Ancient Greek equivalent of Stephanie Meyer, these days...but the leading thinkers of their day, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles and Aristophanes, for instance...are still sought out, by some, and dwelt upon. So, too, will it be with our own more sophisticated thinkers, writers and creators: their works will linger on, long past the "never more to be read by date", of their presently more successful rivals. People like JK Rowling succeed in their own lifetimes...but I don't believe their reputations shall endure on the timescale of centuries and beyond. Their works propel them to riches and fame, during their lifetimes, but it is a kind of illusion, that gives them a present import, far greater than the one posterity shall accord them.

So, if you write and write well, or indeed, create in any medium at all, but your work is a little too sophisticated for the broadest audience - don't worry, for in the long term, your success may outshine that of any of your contemporaries, and your work might still be read, or enjoyed, a thousand years from today.

A final question for all readers, one which invites you to speak of your values and perspectives on what is important, in creative work: would you rather have great worldly success in your own lifetimes, for your creative work, but be forgotten a few decades after your passing - or would you rather modest worldly success in your own lifetime, but have your works, read and enjoyed thousands of years from today?

Answers, please, below. Thanks.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, 10, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, 6 and Tiarnan, 4, this month, please go to:

I also write of gifted education, child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, savant, megasavant, HELP University College, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, Malaysia, IQ, intelligence and creativity.

There is a review of my blog, on the respected The Kindle Report here:

Please have a read, if you would like a critic's view of this blog. Thanks.

You can get my blog on your Kindle, for easy reading, wherever you are, by going to:

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Ainan's IMDB listing is at

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 9:26 PM 


Blogger darth said...

you messed up on the R K Rowling part.

Harry Potter is about Roman civil law. The stories do have both fancy appeal and substance. I suggest reading the Institutes of Justinian to supplement Harry Potter.

11:38 PM  
Blogger darth said...

Just to add on some final comments. The producers know these are lazy and unthinking times. Plato is "lame and uncool" and simply won't work. Just use a pretty packaging to deliver sophisticated messages, of course.

The Matrix trilogy is an obvious recent example. Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism. Ever wondered why Agent Smith kept calling Neo "MISTER Anderson"? Pirates shows us the answer.

The Pirates of the Caribbean is another one. That's really Plato's Republic, though it's not obvious. Cpt Jack Sparrow's compass, the things desired, the poems of Desiderata and The Time of Your Life (tattoos on Johnny Depp's back). The philosopher-king and his ship, Cpt Will Turner and The Flying Dutchman.

Lord of the Rings. Also Plato's Republic. Ratings of 8.x on Imdb for all 3 movies. I'll leave this for you to "think" through.

The producers are the philosopher kings who know human behaviour inside out. Savvy?

3:31 AM  
Blogger Mochi said...

I have noticed that the writing quality has changed. Some of the most popular books (Twilight, the Hunger Games) aren't very well written, and personally, I didn't enjoy them. Though when I pick up a novel, I look for plot, characters and then typically, lastly execution. If it's well-executed, I'll read it despite the plot and characters. On the other hand, if it's poorly written, I will likely avoid that book, even if it's extremely popular.

I would, though, rather be known by a small group of people than a larger and more mainstream audience. I write what I want to write, and rarely to please anyone else.

5:07 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Darth, I do not know whether you jest or not, for I haven't read through a single Harry Potter book. I have just glanced at one, to determine the aptitude of its writer. I have, however, seen a couple of Harry Potter movies - and they were among the most derivative, mind-numbing experiences in my entire life.

JK Rowling (not RK), is one of the world's more acquisitive writers - by this, I mean, she fashions her works out of borrowed ideas, themes and conceits from other people's work. If you are not joking and there is, actually, reference to Justinian in her work, that doesn't impress me at all: that would just mean she has borrowed from yet another source. Unless she actually comments intelligently ON Roman law in a way which makes us change our understanding of it.

My problem with Rowling's work is that it is too derivative and lacking in what I would label a personal vision. She seems to have consciously aped the most successful prior stories she can find, adopting their plot elements and even characters wholesale. I am not fond of this practice. I would rather see a truly original work. Potter isn't it.

10:24 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

The first of the Matrix films was interesting, I agree...the others I am not so sure.

I cannot comment on your analysis of Pirates of the Carribean, since I have never seen it and have no intention of seeing it. (I am past the moment at which I might have succumbed to its appeal). Thus, again, I do not know if you are joking or not.

I will say this, however. Borrowing from great works, or referencing them, does not make a work great in and of itself. In fact, the danger is, it will just make a work derivative and plagiaristic and all rather tired.

Thus, as a general point, if a writer borrows from prior great works, en masse, I do find myself unimpressed with them and their work. I would rather see them have some unborrowed thoughts of their own. I would rather they be a reference, than be referencing.

I don't like Rowling's work because she is one of the more derivative writers around. I find it irritating to watch, when I recognize from whence she has taken "her" ideas. I would prefer work that did not provoke me to identify where everything came from. If I see a work that is fresh, filled with new conceptions I am both startled and happy.

re. your use of inverted commas, on "think"...what are you trying to suggest? In that context, you would seem to be saying that you doubt my capacity to think. If so, you don't know me or my thought very well at all. I think for myself and that is good enough for me. Perhaps you would prefer it were I a Rowling who purloins every second sentence and "thought" from somewhere else? Would that make you happier?

I prefer to be the way I am and find it fruitful enough, thank you.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Mochi for confirming what I, too, have observed: the decline of modern writing. It is good, though, that you are resisting it, by seeking to avoid the worst of it.

Why do you prefer a select audience over a mainstream one? Is this because to reach the mainstream one you would have to compromise on how you write and express yourself? (That is, you would have to "dumb down"). I would be interested to learn.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Mochi said...

It wouldn't be, necessarily, because I'd have to dumb down my work. It'd be more because I'd have to change the work as a whole and not the writing. I don't have a particularly detailed style, so I don't consider it to be much like most modern writers, but I'd rather be known for my writing and not the work of the editor.

As for the Harry Potter books, I have read them, when I was younger but nevertheless. Rowling is an average writer. Nothing special about her style. I think, though, the only thing I was truly engulfed in, in that series, was the world it took place in rather than the actual characters and the plot. But that might just be a personal bias, considering I tend to create worlds and spend vast amount of time on my worlds rather than my characters and plots. The latter two do get their fair amount of attention, but I rather like world-building.

11:05 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks for explaining Mochi.

So, from what I understand, the worlds you build would not be accessible to the widest audience, so you would have to change those, to reach the mainstream?

Have you published any of them, yet? If so, are they available on Amazon?

Kind regards

11:30 AM  
Blogger Mochi said...

Yes, essentially that's what I mean. My worlds, I find, are not like those that I've seen considered mainstream. And in order to sell, the editor would probably change a lot.

I have not been published. I have been writing for about two years now, so I'm still trying to find my voice. In other words, I don't plan on being published until I'm an adult, and that's some four years away.

4:21 AM  
Blogger darth said...

Mister Valentine,

you shall have your reward.

4:25 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hmm...Darth, you are eminently enigmatic. It is rarely quite clear what you mean, or whether you mean it.

The use of Mister in this context seems jarring, as it recalls the Matrix. So, too, it is unclear what you mean by "reward".

I will leave it to you to further explain if you are so moved.

1:45 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...


You write well and maturely for one so young. I had thought you older.

I look forward to seeing your works one day.

Best of luck.

1:48 PM  
Blogger Mochi said...

I can switch between formality and slang when necessary. But I have been told, specifically over the internet, that I come off as older than I really am.

Thank you.

8:45 AM  
Blogger Straight Grandmother said...

Like I said, I ahve been reading your blog from the bottom up, First Jan and now Dec. To be honest with you I am about ready to stop. So if you are not getting the readership you are seeking perhaps it is because people are finding you intellectually elitest. Nobody has ever surpassed Shakespeer, "I haven't read JK Rowlings" but she is mediocre..." and on and on and on. My kid is the smartest kid in the world, I'm a genius, there is no greatness in the current world but I am about to change that by raising up THE (caps intentioned) next great one. You know what, I think those people who are buidling that tunnel under the Swiss and French Alps smashing atoms together and recording for the first time anti-matter are pretty darnes smart! I think thos scientists at NASA, and the Russians who have figured out how to send people into space are pretty darned smart. One of the space probes that was launched 20 years ago is still operating and about to leave our galexy in a few years, I think those poeple are pretty darned smart. You seem to be to be on this tearing people down path, that just plain appears to be very self serving.Almost as if there is nothing going on, but just wait until my son grows up, then HE (and you will bask in the glory) will change things. Those people who dicovered DNA, they sure seem pretty darned smart to me. And the Human Genome project also, pretty darned smart to me.

5:29 AM  
Blogger Straight Grandmother said...

And another thing, even the title of your blog, "The Boy who knew too much" It comes across as very elitist. And no I am not jealous, my kids are all grown up and doing very well in their chosen fields. If there is a super smart human who has been born, Hallelujia, I hope he does great things that benefit humanity. But just understand he will only make a difference in his chosen field and there are other very very smart people who are also making great contributions in other fields. He is not the messiah for crying out loud. When you talk about there is nobody living today who is achieving greatne, what about that English Physisict, you know the one who is handicapped. Get off your high horse is what I am trying to say.

5:40 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Dear "Straight Grandmother".

You are, of course, entitled to your views and may see me anyway you please. However, I do find it curious that you are rushing to label me as "elitist". I do not think of myself in that way. I am merely trying to communicate my understanding of the world honestly in these virtual pages. If that comes across as "elitist" it may be because you are making assumptions and interpreting me in certain ways.

Few people, today, seem to achieve "greatness". This is partly because they are not aiming for it. They are aiming for wealth, usually.

Re. Stephen Hawking. I know his daughter Lucy, actually, from Cambridge. She was very nice...she was acting at the time. You are right that Stephen Hawking is famous. I don't know his work well enough to be able to say whether he has achieved "greatness" or not. It is difficult to see the truth behind all the fame. He is an interesting person, certainly.

To think that we live in times of "greatness" is to have an impoverished understanding of the geniuses of the past. We live, generally, in rather shallow times. To think otherwise, is not to see our times truly as they are.

There are few great people now. There are, however, a lot of large groups of people working towards shared goals. The individual members are certainly not "great" as individuals. It is a different kind of world.

Thanks for your thoughts.

10:26 PM  

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