KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

Books

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

by Kill Your Darlings , 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.




Frances Abbott

David Donaldson

Why #whitehousegate matters

A few days after the release of the budget, in which the Coalition government announced it was spreading the burden by increasing university fees, cutting school funding, and cutting welfare for young people comes a story that confirms what many already suspect to be the nature of opportunity: it’s much easier to come by if you’re born into privilege. Read more »

money

David Donaldson

When does lobbying become corruption?

Whether it’s Clive Palmer buying his way into parliament, the recent, varied ICAC revelations of dodgy fundraising in the NSW Liberal party, or the refusal or inability of successive governments to effectively tackle powerful corporate interests in industries like gambling, mining, media, and junk food, there is a feeling among many Australians that democracy is up for sale. Read more »

cluster munition

David Donaldson

How to make treaties and influence people

In an era when Russia can annex Ukrainian territory, when the Refugee Convention is regularly flouted, and when nobody seems to be able to do anything to stop the carnage in Syria, it can be tempting to ask: what can international law actually achieve? Read more »

1560682_10153899026420591_499501666_n

Eli Glasman

Just a number: The literary world’s obsession with age

I used to be obsessed about what age I would be when I had my first novel published. I’d go on the Wikipedia pages of every famous writer I could think of to check how old they were when their first book came out. Read more »

winterson

Carody Culver

Jeanette Winterson’s sacred and secular space

It seems that people either love her or hate Jeanette Winterson, and sometimes that has less to do with her writing and more to do with the occasional controversies she’s regularly sparked since 1985. Read more »

Untitled

Veronica Sullivan

Adventures in reality with Oliver Mol

One of Mol’s recent pieces contains the line: ‘I want to put my bare ass on the cover of my book because not only will it make good promo but it speaks honestly about who I am.’ Read more »

The Tunnel TV review

Julia Tulloh

The Tunnel vs The Bridge: The ethics of TV remakes

A body is found in the Eurotunnel, neatly laid across the border between France and England. When police attempt to move the body, it splits in two with the top half in France and lower half in England. Read more »

1398878478_lea-michele-brunette-ambition-zoom

Julia Tulloh

How to be beautiful, according to Lea Michele

Lea Michele’s new book, Brunette Ambition, is what you might expect from a fairly young television and musical theatre star. Read more »

Mariah Carey

Julia Tulloh

Is she Mariah, the ‘elusive’ chanteuse?

Two weeks ago, Mariah Carey launched her fourteenth studio album, Me. I am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse. Yes, that’s the real name, and it’s hilarious not only because the title is so long and happily shameless but because Mariah has long styled herself as one of the least elusive pop stars in the pop music galaxy. Read more »

lead_large

Rochelle Siemienowicz

On Boyhood, parenting and the passing of time

Since its premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, film critics have been falling over themselves to lavish love upon Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Read more »

wetlands_poster

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Lucky Dip Diving: an approach to film festivals

I wanted to let go of the grasping desire to watch everything and be part of every conversation. But with the Melbourne International Film Festival in full swing, anxieties arise again. Read more »

Happy Christmas

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Joe Swanberg’s Real Women

In Happy Christmas, the female characters are a pleasure to watch, largely because they’re so familiar in life and so rarely depicted on screen. Read more »

owl1

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Speaking with pixels

On the Facebook Newsfeed, it’s now possible to click a tiny smiley face inside almost any textbox to bring up a series of thumbnail images: an alligator bawling into a tissue, say, or a whistling fox dropping a turd, or a green owl vomiting rainbows. Read more »

hbo-silicon-valley

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Silicon Valley will eat itself

At a certain point in the lifespan of any subculture, fiction and reality start to blur. Members of the subculture begin to model their character and appearance on the idealised representations of themselves they read about or see on screen. Read more »

inbox

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Death to the Inbox

The primary source of our ‘email problem’ seems to lie in our belief that email is a vastly richer and more capable medium than it is. Read more »

Untitled

Danielle Binks

How to buy books for young adults

‘Excuse me, where are the boys’ books? I’m looking to buy for a 16-year-old.’ When I overheard this question while browsing in a bookshop recently, I felt insta-rage. Read more »

detail

Danielle Binks

Fan-Girling Over Super Heroines

The testosterone-fuelled BIFF! BANG! KAPOW! of classic comics can seem uninviting, filled with spandex-clad men and swooning damsels who hold limited appeal outside the stereotypical 18-35 year-old male demographic. But things are changing in the world of comics. Read more »

9780143305323

Danielle Binks

Australia Needs Diverse Books

The ‘We Need Diverse Books’ team is made up of authors, editors and publishers from North America, but the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag and campaign has reverberated in youth literature communities worldwide. Read more »

Jabberwocky1

Chad Parkhill

The carnival is over

Jabberwocky, scheduled to take place last weekend, was the kind of festival that wasn’t supposed to fail. Read more »

Robin Thicke

Chad Parkhill

Why has Robin Thicke’s Paula flopped?

What, exactly, has caused Paula to sell so poorly that it has already positioned itself as this year’s most memorable flop? Read more »

splash

Chad Parkhill

Queering the Power: The Soft Pink Truth’s Why Do the Heathen Rage?

The Soft Pink Truth’s new album ‘Why Do the Heathen Rage’ demonstrates that despite their superficial differences, dance music and black metal have a lot in common. Read more »

2014-07-03-theleftovers

Stephanie Van Schilt

TV pilots: The good, the bad and The Leftovers

With the wealth of shows on offer, committing to a new TV series can feel like a big deal. It’s often during a pilot episode that audiences determine whether the program is appealing enough to stick with for the long haul. Read more »

Alg-90210-jpg

Stephanie Van Schilt

Sick-Person TV

The only upside to getting sick was the many afternoons I spent curled up on the couch at home, watching daytime TV. I inhaled the drama of pre-recorded episodes of Beverley Hills 90210 while playing with my Brandon and Dylan sticker collection (interspersed with sporadic vomiting). Read more »

The_Million_Dollar_Drop_logo

Nicholas J Johnson

Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Nicholas J Johnson defends Lowbrow TV

I can’t stop looking at Eddie McGuire’s smug, stupid face. It’s not my fault. It’s just I’ve never been this close to the man before, and it’s not until now that I’ve realised how oddly smooth and tanned his skin is. As if someone has stretched the orange bladder from a football over a slab of marble. Read more »