20 September 2005

Genius

Jonathan Lethem has won a MacArthur Fellowship, generally known as the "genius award". He's not the first person to win who has published in science fiction magazines (Octavia Butler won in 1995), but it's certainly a rare event, and quite an honor. It's also a lot of money: as the press release says, "$500,000 -- out of the blue -- no strings attached".

I'm glad Lethem was chosen, and certainly am excited for him, but this choice continues the unfortunate trend of the MacArthur award often going to writers who have already found a lot of success. Imagine, for instance, how much it would have changed Lethem's life to get this award not right now, when his books sell well, but ten (or even five) years ago, when the $500,000 would have done exactly what it is supposed to do: free the recipient from financial considerations that limit their ability to experiment. The Whiting Foundation does this relatively well, and the MacArthur could become more than a certificate of success for writers who have already achieved it if more of their choices were bolder. Consider the criteria for the fellowships:
(1) Fellows must be exceptionally creative individuals; (2) Fellows must show significant promise for important future advances based on a track record of accomplishment; and (3) fellowships must be able to relieve constraints that prevent the recipients from freely working on their most innovative projects, to do what might not be done otherwise.
It may be that the "track record of accomplishment" is the limiting factor here, because the judges often like writers who have won a few other awards, but the third criterion is not being put to its best use when the award goes to writers whose work commands a large audience, good advances and royalties, movie options, etc. (Butler is among the writers who are an exception to this. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published an interesting profile of her that explored the benefits and consequences -- not entirely positive -- of the award for her.)

What would happen if all of the MacArthur Fellows who think, "You know, I really don't need this money to do what I do," put some of their award money together in a foundation of their own, and gave The MacArthur Geniuses' Genius Award to people they thought were both deserving of the recognition, and in need of the money? That way they could keep their own recognition, and use the money to do what it was supposed to do in the first place: help the Jonathan Lethems of the world who are struggling in their careers, and who might give in to the temptation to sacrifice the next great novel to a stable job or a movie tie-in book.

(I realize what I've said here may make it seem like I'm not celebrating Jonathan Lethem's award enough, and that's not my intent. It's a tremendous honor, and his career deserves to be honored. My frustration is not with him, but with the MacArthur Foundation, which often sacrifices its potential by giving awards to writers who have already achieved tremendous success.)