Uncategorized | January 31, 2005

The idea makes sense. Give a boatload of money to a young, promising artist, enough money to guarantee that all his or her bills will be paid for the next ten years, enough money to guarantee he or she will have the time for the art, then step back and let the good things happen. It is the logic behind the MacArthur Foundation’s so-called “Genius Grants.” But a recent study by Crain’s Chicago Business “determined that 88% of the MacArthur recipients wrote their greatest works before being recognized by the Chicago-based foundation. The sheer number of books produced by the writers declined, too, after their MacArthur awards.”

Though the study recognizes that, yes, money can change things for writers (in this case, $500,000 over five years), it also notes that too many of the MacArthur recipients are chosen late in their careers–the average age is 48, “well after the literary establishment has recognized them for excellence.” The study notes that Thomas Pynchon was given his MacArthur grant in 1988, 25 years into his career and 15 years after his most notable work, Gravity’s Rainbow. It does also note, however, that Cormac MacCarthy received a MacArthur in 1981, four years before the publication of Blood Meridian, his most critically acclaimed work, and 11 years before he would win the National Book Award for All the Pretty Horses, and that Richard Powers was tapped when he was just 32.