The Five Year Plan: The 2010 MacArthur ‘Genius Grants’

by Marika , September 30, 2010Leave a comment

Think of these words as a crystal ball. Five years from now, which American writers are most likely to have produced the masterpiece that will either launch them into the cultural stratosphere or justify their place if they’re already up there? Read on and you’ll glimpse the future. Not that the names of America’s geniuses-in-waiting are supposed to be secret –they’re announced every year at the end of September – but for all the public fanfare they generate, they might as well be state secrets kept under lock and key. Especially on the international stage, as if those of us outside America aren’t marinated in American culture from the moment we enter the world. Funny how the most generous literary honours short of the Nobel Prizes tend to fly under the radar like that. I’m referring to the MacArthur Foundation Fellowships – announced last Tuesday – which annually fund a select few American writers to the tune of half a million dollars each, paid in instalments of $25,000 every financial quarter for five years, and which boast an alumni roll headlined by the brightest stars of American letters.

The Fellowships remain so inconspicuous because, contrary to media demands, the MacArthur Foundation spits on the idea that they should be accompanied by pomp and pageantry. There’s no build-up to the announcement of Fellowships, no longlist or shortlist released in advance; and no ceremonial dinners after the announcement, no acceptance speeches, no plaques, no medallions, no trophies, no photo opportunities. Nothing more and nothing less than cash in the bank for recipients, every quarter, steady and reliable as clockwork. For those recipients, the Fellowships represent an extraordinary vote of confidence in the quality of their work and, more importantly, in their ability to produce even better work in future.

It’s hard to argue with the pedigree. Robert Penn Warren and Cormac McCarthy were two of the first MacArthur Fellows. Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace followed; so did Susan Sontag and Harold Bloom. Octavia Butler and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and John Ashbery were all Fellows, as were Irving Howe, Andre Dubus, Richard Powers, Ishmael Reed, William Gaddis, Walter Abish and Anne Carson. Charles Simic was a Fellow before he became the US Poet Laureate. So was Joseph Brodsky before he became a Nobel Laureate. And those are just the writers who won Fellowships in the twentieth century. The list of twenty-first century Fellows is even more impressive and more than justifies the tendency to colloquially refer to the Fellowships as ‘Genius Grants’. As a rule, of course, modest recipients always protest that they don’t really deserve to be called ‘geniuses’, but when I look at the list of recipients I don’t know what else to call them. Not only that, but the Fellowships as a whole seems to be designed to respond to the age-old question of whether genius is born or bred: they are given to those who might well have been born geniuses in hopes of bringing out the genius within them.

What counts as genius? Sometimes it’s clear-cut: in 1981, with four sophisticated but commercially lacklustre novels to his credit, Cormac McCarthy used his Fellowship to fund the writing of Blood Meridian, arguably one of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century. Other times, it’s more counterintuitive: in 1988, with Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow, and V already under his belt, Thomas Pynchon used his Fellowship to fund the writing of Vineland, a work more experimentally adventurous (for him) if ultimately less successful than the earlier three novels. Mostly, though, what counts as genius is a major achievement that contains a hint of truly outstanding things to come. David Foster Wallace won his Fellowship on the back of Infinite Jest, Aleksandar Hemon won his on the back of Nowhere Man, and Edward P. Jones won his the same year he picked up the Pulitzer for The Known World – without doubt the best American novel of the last ten years. That decade also saw Fellowships awarded to Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Stuart Dybeck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, and Deborah Eisenberg, as well as Colson Whitehead, who used his Fellowship to write the criminally underappreciated Colossus of New York, and Lydia Davis, whose Collected Stories is one of this year’s best books for all the reasons Dan Chiasson has already raved about.

If you aren’t reading the work of any of these writers, you just are not reading. What they’re writing now is as good as good writing can get. It’s genius, and it’s no lie to say that it comes straight out of those writers each having received a Genius Grant. The Pulitzer and the Booker and the Dublin IMPAC all honour literary works that avid readers already know are works of genius, but only the MacArthur Fellowships prepare the ground for works of genius that have yet to come into being. By guaranteeing recipients a generous quarterly income, the Fellowships unshackle writers from the day jobs they work in order to pay the bills and ‘offer [them] unprecedented freedom and opportunity to reflect, create, and explore’. The Fellowships don’t just recognise genius where it has already bloomed; they create the conditions necessary for it to emerge and flourish.

It’s not easy to win one, though. The selection process is so hush-hush that it makes the AGM of Opus Dei look as leaky as Labor at the last election. There are no application forms. You can’t just catch the attention of the MacArthur Foundation by waving your hand in the air. Instead, each recipient is nominated for a Fellowship – without their knowledge – by an anonymous body of nominators. Then the credentials of all nominees are sent to a selection committee, also anonymous, which assesses their merits according to criteria that remain undisclosed even to those who go on to win Fellowships. Then the selection committee sends its recommendations to the Foundation’s President and finally, after secretly obtaining recipients’ personal phone numbers, representatives of the Foundation call them at home to officially induct them into the ranks of the MacArthur Fellows.

This year, two new writers received The Call. Both are worth getting excited about.

First up, if you’ve got even a passing interest in contemporary fiction, you’ll recognise the name Yiyun Li. Her CV includes only a couple of story collections and a novel, but those books have won her a swag of awards and a place amongst both Granta’s Best Young American Novelists and the ‘20 Under 40’ Writers recently hailed as rising stars in the New Yorker. Having immigrated to America from China in 1996, Li tends to write about the troubled history of her homeland, its relationship to the United States, and the immigrant’s sense of cultural displacement. Three other recent MacArthur Fellows from wildly different cultural backgrounds have similar concerns—Hemon, from Bosnia; Adichie, from Nigeria; and Danticat, from Haiti—each of whom has either published a significant work or looks set to publish one in the next couple of years. With Li now given a chance to join them, four of the six major American immigrant writers working today (the other two being Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Díaz) are now backed by the MacArthur Foundation. The Foundation, in other words, is now the primary sponsor of the multiculturalisation of American literature, effectively shoring up the literary future of a nation that will be populated by a multicultural majority in the next few decades.

Next up, and even more exciting than Yiyun Li, is the screenwriter David Simon, mastermind of the TV series The Wire. I’ll leave it to others to explain what makes The Wire a stunning cinematic and, yes, literary achievement; but, in any event, The Wire is over and done with and therefore doesn’t stand to benefit from Simon’s Genius Grant. That distinction goes to Treme, Simon’s latest TV series. Treme has no guarantee of running as long as The Wire but those with a hunger for literature should follow it because it shares an explicit interest in literary matters. The show is set in New Orleans, a city that has provided a setting for the work of some of America’s greatest writers –Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Walker Percy, William S. Burroughs, John Kennedy Toole – and the series is, among other things, a love letter to that literary heritage, concentrating its main storyline on a local English professor (John Goodman) who retreats into the literature of New Orleans as a means of dealing with the trauma of having seen his city decimated by Hurricane Katrina. As far as I’m concerned, if David Simon’s MacArthur Fellowship amounts to an investment in this series, it does as good a job of appreciating the value of American literature as if it had gone to a novelist instead.

So the crystal ball has spoken for another year: the prognostications have been made, and the MacArthur Foundation has backed them up with cold hard cash. First things first: do whatever it takes to hunt down A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants by Yiyun Li and to find a copy of David Simon’s Treme, and set aside a few hours to soak them up. Then take a deep breath, hold on to your seat, and wait for the returns to roll in. Make an effort now to remember those names and I’ll guarantee you: five years from now, you won’t be able to forget them.

Daniel Wood is a graduate student, tutor and lecturer in Literary Studies at the University of Melbourne.


Nathan Smith

Letting the Essays Do The Talking: Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth

In the introduction to her essay collection My Misspent Youth, Meghan Daum writes that as frank as her essays are, they ‘are not confessions’. The personal essay may have long defined Daum, but she is far from a ‘confessional writer’, a title she has long resisted. Read more »


Ilona Wallace

Between You & Me: The New Yorker’s Mary Norris on publishing, editing and insecurity

Mary Norris begins her chatty grammar guide and memoir, Between You & Me, by chronicling the odd jobs she held before she began working at the New Yorker in 1978. She delivered milk – awkwardly calling ‘Milkwoman!’ when she left bottles at each stop – and crashed the dairy truck. Read more »


Chad Parkhill

On judging the Most Underrated Book Award

The chair of the judging panel for the Most Underrated Book Award shares his observations on the award, what it means to be ‘underrated’, and the current landscape of Australian literary prizes. Read more »

ROSEANNE - On set in New York - 10/16/93 
Sara Gilbert (Darlene) on the ABC Television Network comedy "Roseanne". "Roseanne" is the story of a working class family struggling with life's essential problems.

Rebecca Shaw

Out of the Imaginary Closet: Fictional characters who should have been gay

When you are part of a group that isn’t portrayed in the same way (or only negatively, or not at all) you become desperate for that glimmer of recognition. Here are several characters that I loved as a young person, who became stand-ins for the openly lesbian characters I wanted to see so much. Read more »



Isn’t It Obvious: Queer representation in children’s television

For a non-binary gendered person, characters with diverse sexualities and genders are validating and rewarding. As a child, they could have offered integral touchstones for understanding my own gender, and provided context and validation for the ways in which I could exist in the world. Read more »


Rebecca Varcoe

In defence of professional cheerleading

My name is Rebecca and I’m a 26-year-old woman with a shameful secret, for which I refuse to be ashamed any longer. Today I want to confess my obsession and one true love, the subject of many rants and late-night tweeting frenzies: Cheerleading. American, All-Star Cheerleading. Read more »


James Tierney

Bodily Limits: An interview with Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film Suspiria suffered from a critical eclipse and a variety of censored prints, and was largely cherished in its original form by aficionados of the field. A reassessment has been building, something sure to be aided by the forthcoming publication of Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ perceptive and elegantly written monograph. Read more »

je tu il elle 2

Eloise Ross

Existence as Minimalism: Remembering Chantal Akerman

Images of a young woman, emptying her small flat of furniture, blocking the window and sitting in the dark, still. Sitting on a mattress in a bare room, furiously writing letters with a pencil and watching the snow through the window. Meeting with a past lover and reuniting on-screen. I think about Chantal Akerman’s films more often than I can say. Read more »


Anwen Crawford

Throne Of Blood: Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth

For more than four centuries, we have found versions of ourselves in Shakespeare’s plays precisely because his characters are so human in their flaws and follies. At the same time, the arc of these characters’ stories unfolds somewhere above and beyond us, in the realm of grand tragedy or grand comedy, or both. Read more »


Matilda Dixon-Smith

Family Matters: Please Like Me and the Aussie TV family

In a recent episode of Josh Thomas’s Please Like Me, the bouncy titles run over three little scenarios: Josh cooks dinner for his mate Tom and his boyfriend Arnold; his Mum cooks for her new housemate Hannah; and his Dad cooks for his wife, Mae. The three of them stir, sip wine and dance daggily around their kitchens in a neat metaphor for this season’s fantastic, cohesive new trajectory. Read more »



Isn’t It Obvious: Queer representation in children’s television

For a non-binary gendered person, characters with diverse sexualities and genders are validating and rewarding. As a child, they could have offered integral touchstones for understanding my own gender, and provided context and validation for the ways in which I could exist in the world. Read more »


Alexis Drevikovsky

Have You Ever Felt Like This: Going Round the Twist again

Working from home one day, I took my lunchbreak away from my laptop and flicked idly through the TV channels, hoping for a midday movie with Reese Witherspoon or, even better, an old episode of Cheers. What I found was beyond my wildest dreams. I excitedly texted my mate Alison: Round the Twist is on ABC3! Read more »


Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Tom Conroy and Colin Friels in Mortido. Photo credit: Shane Reid

Jane Howard

A Shining Nightmare: Mortido‘s Sydney

Sydney is a city of shine and reflective surfaces. The glint of the harbour follows through to city high-rises clad in polished glass, bouncing off the wide windows of the mansions hugging the undulating land before it gives way to the impossibly deep and wide water. But this beauty that can betray the darkness of the city and its people. Read more »


Angela Meyer

Outrageous Fortune: Seeing Hamlet as a Cumberbitch

Jazz swells, hushing the audience, and the solid black gate of the theatre curtain opens. It reveals the lounging figure of Hamlet, playing a record, sniffing his father’s old jumper. But what I see first is not Hamlet: it is Benedict Cumberbatch. Read more »

kiss copy

Jane Howard

Great Aspirations: In the shadow of Patrick White

The text of The Aspirations of Daise Morrow is lifted directly from Patrick White’s short story ‘Down at the Dump’. It’s a wonderful thing to hear White’s judicious use of language; to understand the eyes through which he saw Australia; and to see an entire world of his creation brought to life in the theatre. Read more »