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.


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