20 September 2005


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.)


  1. brilliant idea. I agree, Lethem is deserving, but would have been more deserving many years ago, when he actually needed the money in order to write.

  2. Greetings,

    Just to update anyone who follows the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    (which is such an odd construction, by the way, I understand PostModernism, but PostIntelligence sounds like the punchline to a joke about the current administration)

    Octavia Butler link. "Fledgling," the vampire novel the article alludes to, has a release date of October but is in stores now. It's her first novel in seven years.


  3. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride!

  4. I agree with your thoughts on the McArthur. From what I've heard a lot of grants (in literature and arts) are essentially awards for being already successful and/or go to people who've already gotten a lot of grants. I was told by a friend in the academic/creative writing stream, that one generally expects one's Whiting on one's second or third book assuming one has stayed on track with the right schools, grants, academic positions and critical reception. Of course she could have just been blowing smoke. I've also heard of certain Creative Writing chairmen who claim to be able to track their younger professors toward a Guggenheim after a certain number of years.

    Probably it's a not an area American speculative fiction writers have to worry about. These two MacAurther grants to writers involved with the field probably have little to do with that involvement per se; and won't serve as validation of genre-related writers to future grant givers.

    D. Kilby

  5. One of the reasons that awards often go to people who already have various successes is that the administrators of the award often want to bet on a relatively sure thing -- they want the recipients of the award to reflect well on the award itself, keeping its prestige high. Of course, as some critics of the MacArthur have shown, even sure things aren't sure things, and the definition of a "sure thing" is often a very commercial one.

    Certainly, most of the people who receive awards have a certain pedigree. I'm not sure how much of this is cronyism and how much is simply that people reward things they appreciate, and what they appreciate is determined by the normatizing (sorry for the jargon) force of whatever environment they're part of. I'm not so much concerned with taste and legitimacy as I am the fact that some writers' careers really need the money and recognition, others don't. (This is one reason I think the Quill awards are flat-out grotesque; they're designed to award people for being successful and popular. But that's another topic entirely.)

  6. In terms of the $-linked awards, even established writers usually need money. Novels come out infrequently enough that the advances/royalties don't really pay the bills, even if they do achieve some popular success (exempting the Stephen King's etc who are both popular and prolific--and as a result get loads of flak when they when an award).

    Reading Samuel R. Delaney's 1984 (letters from that year of his life) was an eye-opener, because he had had a number of quite successful novels and won numerous awards but was still living hand-to-mouth. With writing it was peaks and valleys when it come to moneys, which didn't work to well in our taxation scheme.

    That being said, the authors that could probably use the money the most are those that specialize in short stories. Novels have a chance at making money, short stories not.

  7. Delany was living hand to mouth in 1984 because he had to pay taxes on a significant advance he received in one year and then had to return the next.

  8. I can't criticize a foundation for throwing money at a writer (maybe some day I will be the lucky beneficiary).

    A literary friend of mine won a $200,000 prize 10 years ago. He's talented, but I doubt the novel that won him the most praise was THAT good. (Reminds me of Daniel Quinn's Ismael which won $500,000--very good but not THAT good).

    As a literary unknown, here's what I see to be the biggest problem in awards/grants.

    Many grants/fellowships depend on conventional publication credits. POD's and web fiction is often ruled ineligible. I've been writing my butt off for 15+ years, and (like many other writers of my age) are forgoing traditional publishing in favor of self-publishing, POD and ebooks. I have a hard time understanding why this decision disqualifies me from NEA grants, for example.

    Another problem is that literary prizes exist mainly in the realm of commercial publishing. I would really like to see a POD win a Pulitzer for example. The problem is that the literary world (and to some extent the blogging world) is still tied to book publishing. Publishing PR and advertising still generates a lot of online buzz, whereas POD's are for the most part ignored by online critics.

    Sci fi, of course, is a different story.