Writer Joshua Wolf Shenk seems to be asking a good-natured, almost ingenuous question in his new book: Where does creativity come from? But in a time when creativity — and its corporate cousin, "innovation" — has become commodified and merchandised, these may be fighting words.
Shenk's "Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs" (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28) is already stirring up fascination and disapproval. Unlike books that look at muses or author's friendships, it doesn't simply consider a pair of creative figures. Rather, it sees the two-person collaboration as the essential creative act.
"Someone just tweeted, 'Oh my God, another formula — I'm so sick of this,'" says the wiry and bespectacled Shenk, sipping coffee in faded jeans in the basement of his Silver Lake house. "I tweeted back, 'I'm also allergic to formulas.'" He says the collaborative process is "like love, like God, if you're interested in spirituality … something that can't be fully accounted for."
Shenk's book aims to make analytic sense of creative partnerships — John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Marie and Pierre Curie, George Balanchine and Suzanne Farrell — while refusing to reduce them. He was trying to get beyond the lone-genius myth but also past the now-trendy notion that creativity comes primarily from sprawling networks.
"One side's clearly mythical," he says of the solitary-hero trope. "It's like the Immaculate Conception theory of creativity. And the other side is true, but it's so complex, it leaves out the day-to-day experience." While duos "allow you to consider us as social creatures, that still recognizes the dignity of the individual, the potency of the individual, and the importance of solitude. [Stuff] does happen in the human head that's mind-blowing!"
The initial spark for "Powers of Two" came from Shenk's interest in the notion of personal chemistry: A depressive who's lived an often isolated life, the Cincinnati native was fascinated with the way some encounters could be transformative and energizing.
While researching Vincent and Theo van Gogh, his thinking turned. "I said, 'Wait a second. If Vincent van Gogh is part of a partnership as opposed to just marginally supported, that totally [overturns] the table-setting of all my ideas about creativity.' "
He began to see creative pairs everywhere — Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Alfred Hitchcock and Kim Novak — and realized that we'd spent centuries lying to ourselves.
"It sounds so geeky, but the question is sort of, 'What is the self anyway?' Is there a history of the way we conceive of the self?" He realized the Enlightenment, Romanticism, Modernism and the Cold War — with its rugged individualist heroes from Ayn Rand's protagonists to the Marlboro Man — had led Westerners to overemphasize the lone genius.
"One of the things I've always found remarkable about Josh is that he writes directly into the face of the things that unnerve him the most," says Eamon Dolan, who edited the new book as well as "Lincoln's Melancholy," the celebrated book on the president's depression. "He realized with the exception of his relationship with me, creative relationships had been a challenge for him."
The partnership that begins and ends the book and resurfaces throughout is Lennon and McCartney's: Shenk shows how the relationship's stages are replicated, at some level, in other duos, whether Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak or Matt Stone and Trey Parker: Dyads tend to move through what Shenk calls "Meeting," "Confluence," "Dialectics," "Distance," "The Infinite Game" and "Interruption"; the book's sections are built on this structure.
He also works the Beatles story — from Lennon and McCartney's first meeting at a 1957 Quarrymen show to the band's breakup and beyond — in enough depth to give his thesis grounding. (He wants his book, he says, to be about "sustained narrative, not anecdotes," distinguishing it from pop social-science books by authors he prefers not to name.)
His Beatles argument is both vivid and persuasive — it made for an engaging Atlantic cover story — but also shows places where he's likely to be assailed.
By looking at the band's last few years — before and during 1968's White Album — Shenk is going beyond the period that many credible observers consider the heart of the collaboration. Some see the period after 1967's "A Day in the Life" as a collection of solo songs played by a band; the magical John-Paul fusion in general has been demystified. Whether he is bravely tossing aside the conventional wisdom on the band or returning to an earlier conventional wisdom is hard to say.
Similarly, Shenk's book works to transform even famously lonely figures — Rainer Maria Rilke, Emily Dickinson, Martin Luther King Jr. — into one side of a duet. "He's really going out on a limb," Dolan says.
Shenk concedes in his book's introduction that he's primarily writing a work of synthesis. But on some points, he's making original or at least unfashionable arguments. Perhaps the most central of them is that the creative partnerships elucidated in the book are not great because they are fun or because they "empower" the participants but because they leave us with great work. And often — most of the time, in fact — they are deeply contentious. This may come from the way creative pairs tend to be simultaneously indistinguishable and near-opposites. "There is — over and over again — this pattern of profound similarity — to the point that they really seem like identical twins. And enough difference that they seem like different species."
And while intimate creative pairs are often likened to marriages, Shenk sees them, and their dissolution, as much sadder than even a broken romantic connection. He knows of what he speaks: He moved to Los Angeles from New York in 2011 with a baby son and a former fiance he had recently split with.
"Powers of Two," then, is "the joining of this helpful, enormously optimistic narrative with the tragedy," he says. "At its heart, these are really dark stories — two people who are bound together and can't get out. It's unspeakably joyful … and unspeakably sad. I think we can tell stories in which we recognize both."
Timberg is the author of the forthcoming book "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."
Joshua Wolf Shenk in conversation with Jonathan Ames