Shitty Genius: An Essay by Brad Phillips


     I am writing in this fashion, where I’m referring to myself, because it allows me to tell you that it’s possible I have been told I am a genius. And that it’s a fact I have been told I am an asshole. Were it true, the people (barely plural) who have told me I am a genius are young, enamoured of all the wrong things, unable to spot illusions and easily manipulated by flashes of cleverness and putative displays of technical virtuosity. The people who have told me I am an asshole are of two types; one—those who know me very well, statistically more often female than male and often romantically involved with me in some way or another, while the other type does not know me whatsoever, but thinks they know me quite well. They believe that what one sees on the internet, in magazines, is the absolute gospel, that all appearances are necessarily true. They’re often parasites, artists manqué, personality collectors or spongy osmotics with social goals. Often artists, or lurk near artists; they think I’m doing much better than I should be, or better than they are; they’re never aware of my poverty, what actually occurs should you be successful. In short they are either men (boys) who think I think I’m better than them, or women who think what their friend said is true.

     The very few people who know me very well will readily testify that I am neither an asshole nor a genius. That I’m possibly talented and often inexorably cruel to insincere people. Here are some people that I’ll say I believe are/were geniuses—Vladimir Nabokov. Patricia Highsmith. Martin Amis.

Vladimir Nabokov

     It’s important to distinguish what a genius is not. J.D. Salinger was not a genius. J.D. Salinger was an adequate young adult writer. His books are fine. There are only a few of them, which makes them seem more special than they probably are. I actually harbour the belief that Salinger was a hack writer who conflated misprisions about Eastern Religion with thinly veiled pedophilia in an attempt to secure himself an endless supply of future female acolytes, who came to him, as Joyce Maynard did, to study under the elusive master, only to lose years of their lives to become debased house-holders. Lured, conquered, dismissed. Unlike the typical male however, Salinger liked to keep them in the homestead for a while, usually to perpetuate his own apparent ideas about the need for a genius to have a mute decommissioned female subjugate her own ambition in order to serve the greater good, the public, keeping Salinger full of sandwiches and unin- terrupted by his children. Salinger had one testicle. He had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He had his name on his mailbox while living his ostensibly monastic life, tapping away sentimentally on his typewriter in a concrete bunker. J.D. Salinger had a genius for one thing only, which was parodying the modern American genius. The true recluse, Thomas Pynchon, Harper Lee, vanishes; if Salinger didn’t hear his name in the press for a few years, he’d fire off a letter to an editor or make himself almost available to someone still somewhat interested in him, only to reject them so they could sell the story to a newspaper. J.D. Salinger liked girls and he liked to be considered, as he put it himself, ‘not of this world.’ His desire for nubile pussy and endless curiosity are in reality some of the most quotidian desires of the average male. Two things most often related to genius morphing into self-created hells are sex and mental illness. Occasionally it’s sex and mental illness; something that’s often misdiagnosed as perversity.

     Martin Amis loves Vladimir Nabokov, V.S. Naipaul, Philip Roth and John Updike. He was helpless to stop writing about any of them in his days as a literary critic and essayist. He’s written books, The House of Games being one, that almost function as fan fiction for a Nabokov junkie. Martin Amis loves (or is bemused and/or repulsed by) sex with women. Martin Amis loves to praise Philip Roth. Philip Roth is loathed by women and almost all of his books that aren’t strictly about being Jewish are about being Jewish and fucking/demonizing women.


     V.S. Naipaul

     Amis’ first book The Rachel Papers is a perfectly written and terrifyingly precise look into the sexual mind of a young, self-diagnosed intellectual, sampling the freedom of life outside the parental home. Roth’s first book Portnoy’s Complaint, came before it and is a more masturbation-focused Hebraic precursor to Amis’ novel. Roth has been called a genius. He’s won enough awards. Amis can’t get enough of John Updike. I certainly can. His books are tedious and almost constantly involve celebrating his genitals and their virulent glory. Many people say Updike is the premiere WASP American writer of the 20th century. Many people also say he’s a loathsome Lothario whose put more women through the ringer than Rocco Siffredi. Like Roth, Updike is unapologetic to the point of a fixed smirk about his reputation as a misogynist. As far as V.S. Naipaul, at any given time you can Google him to read new stories about ruined women, his sadomasochism, racism, wife beating and almost meteorologically vast arrogance. Amis loves him some Naipaul.

     Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita, which ruined the name Lolita, and is known well enough to not discuss. It’s also one of his weakest books. It was also his favourite book. Of all the dozens of books, collections and pamphlets Nabokov churned out, each and every one is dedicated to his wife Vera. Vera was his translator and assistant. They were already quite wealthy. Although he spoke of the success of Lolita as the instance that allowed him to quit teaching to focus wholly on writ- ing, he can’t stop reminding you in his essays and memoirs that he came from a very noble family, one with great wealth, and while Vera didn’t need to work, and may have been happy transcribing Vlad’s old handwritten manuscripts into various languages for decades, the insistence of the dedication hints at some apology or constant assuagement. In his book Strong Opinions—a compendium of essays, letters to editors, correctional notes to lepidopteral journals, the scope of Nabokov’s arrogance is astounding. I ascribe to many of his beliefs as an artist, that there are only two schools in any creative art, those ‘of talent and no talent.’ He quotes Pushkin in saying that he ‘writes for pleasure but publishes for money’ and is a staunch advocate of the Ivory Tower impetus for creativity. However when Nabokov, in the midst say of a complex new novel, takes the time to write a thousand word letter to the editor over an accidental apostrophe when a piece of his writing is reproduced in a magazine, or lambastes in print a translator who fumbles awkwardly with an already archaic and obscure Russian word, the force of his obsessive control and overblown ego are shatteringly unpleasant. Monomania is listed in the DSM-V as a mental illness. One can dismiss other writers in reviews and in interviews, but for a man who boasts a singularly vast vocabulary, his insistence on calling Camus a ‘hack’ and Sartre a ‘loathsome Philistine,’ Dostoevsky a ‘writer of infantile pamphlets’— he is displaying both a schoolyard bully demeanour, as well as an embarrassingly obvious desire to make you believe that by dismissing writers most intellectuals have deemed the greatest of their time, he is in fact the only real writer worth reading. He adores Ulysses by James Joyce (which is a very good book, but most everyone will admit insanely hard to finish) but says that Finnegan’s Wake isn’t even suitable to wipe one’s ass with. Nabokov needs you to believe he is the sui generis literary figure of the last five hundred years. Strangely the one writer he consistently lauds is the almost laughably corny Alain Robbe-Grillet. Robbe-Grillet tends to write almost exclusively about young girls, or, as Nabokov would say, ‘nymphets’ —a neologism he claims to have coined and boasts about ad nauseum. Robbe-Grillet is all but forgotten unless you happen to pick up a book of photos by ex-pat apparent pedophile David Hamilton, whose books of underage underweight dancers, with horrid titles like ‘Sisters’ and ‘Dreams of a Young Girl’ are peppered with awful prose by Robbe-Grillet about the unspoiled beauty of underweight underage ballerinas. Of course all the while Nabokov will insist he is not himself interested in young girls whatsoever. But he certainly is proud of Lolita, and loves the saccharine blush praise of an awful French hack. If not enough, his favourite artist is Balthus (paedophilic realist par excellence), whose work is ‘vastly superior’ to that other ‘hack’, Henri Matisse.

     Philip Roth may be extremely talented, I’d say so, but I’m not certain he’s a genius. He’s a certifiably unpleasant man. Updike again, same reputation. Some people enjoy Norman Mailer, I don’t know any of them, but he did stab his wife. And he was known to be a piece of shit in general. Martin Amis is almost homoerotically obsessed with Roth, Nabokov, Naipaul and Updike, and from time to time has tossed Mailer a bone. I myself love Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov and Martin Amis. I also love Philip Larkin, another writer Amis praises endlessly, who was a fixture in the childhood home of his father, the notorious asshole Kingsley Amis. Larkin is a brilliant poet who wrote about being bald, getting fat, and how incredibly hard it is (for him) to talk to women. In an excerpt from his personal diaries published in Amis’ collection of essays and reviews, Visiting Mrs. Nabokov, we are treated to information Larkin felt the need to keep to himself, when writing samples of his ideal fan mail, which I’ll need to paraphrase from memory as I had to sell the book for cigarettes:

“Dear Mr. Larkin, I’m just your biggest fan, and I know that being only fifteen you think I may not understand your work, but…”

“Mr. Larkin, my best friend and I are 16 and live in Camden Town, we thought you may be the ideal man to judge who has the nicer breasts…”

     Larkin was truly a brilliant and intensely sad writer. He apparently only owned one chair so that nobody would be able to visit for too long. Of all his verse, one line speaks most accurately to his feelings about women, and it’s not an unrelatable fourteen words:

He married a woman to stop her getting away
Now she’s there all day

     The yawning torture of the British poet is almost cliché; Emily Dickinson did not leave her home for two decades; but Larkin’s inner turmoil later transmogrified into brutal misogyny and rather disgusting racism.

Clinical Depression is listed in the DSM-V as a mental illness.

     I use these examples because not much has been published about Martin Amis’ personal life. He has children, a wife; a friend who saw him speak recently in San Francisco described him as a ‘virulent fascist and xenophobe.’ I think Martin Amis is a genius. I could be wrong—it doesn’t matter. He thinks he’s one and that also doesn’t matter. His writing is unparalleled. I’d say the same of Nabokov, who essentially invented a style of writing no one will ever be able to come close to. The authors Amis champions tend to be unassailably talented, excepting perhaps Updike and the self-aggrandizing slop artist V.S. Naipaul. So it’s through using proxies—approval and praise for a coterie of well-known scumbag male writers that I can safely classify Amis as a scumbag himself. This isn’t a scientific formula by any stretch— it’s just a lot of paying attention and endless reading and connecting the dots to assume that Amis, who already writes books full of loathsome, often misogynist characters, privileges male writers who also write about women with the same disdain, and publically reveal themselves to be supremely arrogant and morally circumspect in their personal lives, that I can feel secure in my belief that Amis himself is a genius, and a shitty person. Everyone he loves, and it’s a very small number, share two particular traits. They’re bombastic and misogynistic. There is a mathematics involved that I can’t articulate, but I can write with certainty that I imagine he’s a nightmare to be involved with.

Women are equal to men! Picasso was a bastard. Imagine a female equivalent.

     Patricia Highsmith. This woman was a genius. This woman was a lesbian who also had affairs with men. It’s thought that she had Asperger’s Syndrome. She was never diagnosed as such, and this belief held by friends and colleagues may solely have been a way to medicalize a personality that was intensely cruel and unaware or unconcerned with conventional manners and kindnesses. Regardless, it’s listed in the DSM-V as a mental illness. She was apparently a sex addict, as her biographer speaks about at length. She was also obsessed with snails, her later work being published most often in Omni; tales of giant snails taking over the world. She was once spotted at a cocktail party holding a handbag that contained a head of lettuce and hundreds of snails. She used to smuggle snails into Switzerland, where she lived most of her life as an ex-pat, inside of her brassiere. I can imagine her small breasts, which are reproduced in black and white photos in her extensive biography, lost inside of overlarge bras being massaged and lacquered by dozens of snails.


Patricia Highsmith

     Most notable quote belonging to Ms. Highsmith: “My imagination functions much better when I don’t have to speak to people.”

    Philip Larkin had one chair. This quote and that chair do not themselves indicate a problem. What the quote and the single chair exclude do.

     Highsmith was, and this is in part the fault of the male literary establishment of the time, miscast as a pulp crime writer. Certainly novels like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley use the format of the pulp crime novel, but they do so to address complicated moral concerns. I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for her to be relegated to the crime shelf of the book- shop, when she was producing some of the most insightful and precise ‘existentialist’ novels of the 20th century. She made a great deal of money off her work; Hitchcock made Strangers on a Train, while The Talented Mr. Ripley was made into three different films in her lifetime. However, her primary disappointment and bitter obsession was that no matter how many times she submitted her work, The New Yorker would never publish it. She ranted about it endlessly. She had a reasonable desire to see her work contextualized in the proper light, and it never happened in her lifetime. Her most ardent champion was Graham Greene who constantly told anyone who would listen that she was perhaps the greatest living literary prodigy. But even with Greene she was often cruel and insulting. An acquaintance that comes up often in her biography, Oscar Penzler, is quoted saying “She was a mean, hard cruel, unlovable, unloving person. I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly.” She doesn’t sound very nice.

     Like V.S. Naipaul, and recently Martin Amis, she was also a vocal racist, living in Europe from 1963 until her death, creating dozens of pseudonyms with which to write virulent anti-Semitic letters to the editors of various newspapers. In 1943 she had an affair with a promising painter named Allella Cornell. Highsmith terminated the affair with the same depth of feeling one uses to drop a letter in the mailbox. In 1946 Cornell committed suicide by drinking nitric acid. Very unpleasant. Highsmith offers an antidote to the idea that certain brilliant people—her own personal relationships mirroring those of Picasso quite often—who can also be unspeakably cruel, do not always need to be men. That the number of equivalent women is so small in comparison to the raging monomaniacal male savants we hear about is not so much indicative of a difference between the genders as it is an example of how rarely the talent of women is elevated to the status of genius, whereas with men, if you can write one good book or paint a few nice pictures, chances are that appellation may be offered to you.

Martin Amis


     Sex and mental illness. Compelling overwhelming things. I know about these things. What unifies these artists related to their talent, as opposed to their cruelty, is not as interesting but deserves mentioning. British painter Frank Auerbach is very talented. Talented but no genius, little is known of his personal life, except that the only people he’s close to are the models who sit for him. He lost both his parents to the Nazis, and was relocated to London to live with distant family. In an interview he shows very little affect or emotion about having had his parents die in concentration camps. Auerbach is unspeakably wealthy, a consistent figure in contemporary art for half a century. In the only footage he’s allowed to be shot of him which comprised a documentary a few years ago, he’s asked what he does with his spare time. He does nothing. He has no cottage, no hobbies, his apartment and studio are both only what he needs. He works twelve hours a day every single day of the year excepting one, Christmas, which he takes off in order to treat his models to a day in Brighton. Otherwise he only paints. This is what I’ve seen over and over in the lives of people considered to be geniuses, an inability to focus on anything other than what obsesses them. John Berryman in his suicide note to his wife described himself as ‘unregenerate and unemployable.’ This is not the result of a life spent in pursuit of creative perfection, it’s a requirement. If you have a backup plan, you can back up. If you learn how to do other things, practical things, then you have to spend time doing them. Nabokov, Highsmith, Amis: they only wrote. They wrote to make money to continue writing. They wrote about what happened with the success that came from writing. Creativity at this stage turns in on itself, it becomes an ouroboros of neurosis and self-obsession. And it has to, and it is a positive thing. It’s something we as readers benefit from.

     When you’re driving a car fast in the rain at night you only see the lights ahead of you. You miss the landscape, the colours of the other vehicles, the sounds from the radio. Hyperacuity excludes the engagement of other facilities, and prohibits people from developing the normal social and practical skills that we see as defining a more ‘human’ human being. So if you already are beset by mental illness, or fixated on sex, butterflies, fetishes; to focus entirely on your creative output understandably may cause you to appear caustic, immor- al, cruel or indifferent. Feral children spit, swear, scratch and take their clothes off at the wrong times. Infamous Genie who was strapped to a potty chair for the first twelve years of her life was not equipped for the world she escaped into. And certain artists, whether it’s of their own choosing or a way to deal with a frangible mind, strap themselves to their typewriter or their easel. It’s easy to point fingers at what entertains us. Harder to find empathy for what it takes to produce entertainment. I only paint and write. I go to the same Vietnamese restaurant everyday at the same time. When I reread Money by Martin Amis, I see myself in John Self; when I reread The Rachel Papers, I see myself in Charles Highway. But I’m not a genius. I’m the other thing.