On the Overuse of the Word "Genius" and the Damage it's Causing.

The word “genius” is about bandied about entirely too much nowadays. Lately, it seems as if anyone who does something somebody else likes is automatically provided with that label. The bar has been lowered so ridiculously close to the ground for true genius that almost anyone who can string a sentence together or shoot something in focus is held up with the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci and that guy who invented the pet rock.

What exactly is a genius anyway?  What does the word actually mean and, more importantly, how does it relate to the individuals being praised as such?

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the only truly reputable source for definitions in my opinion, the meaning of the word “Genius” is as follows:



a. Extraordinary intellectual and creative power: artistic works of genius.

b. A person of extraordinary intellect and talent.

c. A person who has an exceptionally high intelligence quotient, typically above 140.


a. A strong natural talent, aptitude, or inclination: has a genius for choosing the right words.

b. One who has such a talent or inclination: a genius at diplomacy.


In 1711, when the notion of genius was becoming mainstream, Joseph Addision wrote, “There is no character more frequently given to a writer than that of being a genius', wrote Addison. ‘There is not a heroic scribbler in the nation that has not his admirers who think him a great genius; and as for your smatterers in tragedy, there is scarce a man among them who is not cried up by one or other for a prodigious genius.”

Even back then some people understood the word genius to be an overused descriptive employed by people who were easily impressed by the creative or intellectual processes of others.  Okay, fine.  There were also far fewer people alive then than there are now.  These days the word is used by more than just scholars and intellectual hedonists.  Online communication has shrunk the world and given everybody with fingers a voice.  It has also convinced a large amount of the population that they are experts on whatever subject they find interesting or entertaining.

This all-around expert status has also led to irresponsible usage of words such as “genius” and even “essential,” which is a commentary unto itself (and one that’s in the works).  Much like hopeful parents desperate to have their children labeled as “gifted” when they’re clearly average, millions of people in the Western world ascribe genius to works that, while often well-written, performed, directed, etc., are most certainly not works of genius.

For instance, a certain writer/director who is the darling of the fanboy/girl contingent can do no wrong in the eyes of these people.  However, when someone who might know what he or she is talking about takes an objective look at this person’s work, what emerges is something different from blind, unquestioning, cult-like adoration.  Instead, one begins to see a list of contrivances and gimmicks that have served him so well, admittedly to positive effect in several cases, that aren’t works of genius, they’re just very clever and entertaining. 

One of my Facebook friends referred to this person’s “quiet genius,” a comment that made me chuckle.  He is definitely soft-spoken, so they got the quiet part right, but a genius? Sadly, no. Heavy-handed pop culture references, self-conscious dialogue and supposedly unexpected deaths are not indicative of genius.  Calling him that puts this individual on the same level as Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola or even Kubrick when he wasn’t succumbing to his one sense of importance.  I can guarantee one thing in this piece above all others: The unnamed auteur will never create anything on their level and thinking otherwise is simply embracing cluelessness.

However, his fans will never come around to my way of thinking either.  Nor do I necessarily want them to.  People are entitled to their viewpoints, no matter how damaging they are to the Big Picture.  And make no mistake: There is damage being caused here. 

Hailing modest talents as geniuses has led to an overall reduction in quality in the arts, the ever-lamented Law of Diminishing Returns.  Derivation has become its own animal, with music “sampling” and “mashup” fiction on the front lines of the struggle to bankrupt imaginations and marginalize more original voices.  I see no end in sight to this and, while I try to write mostly stories from my own head and not someone else’s, I certainly don’t view myself as the heir apparent to the throne of righteous originality.

But genius, true genius, will always distinguish itself from the rest.  It’s just going to need to develop a much louder voice~



Popular Posts