Another year, another snub by the MacArthur Foundation. That is to say, the winners of the annual no-strings-attached, $500,000 “genius” awards were announced yesterday, and none of us were on it. I guess it’s what small-time crook Woody Allen said in “Take the Money and Run,” a propos his inability to make the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List: “It’s all who you know.”
But seriously, I’ve always been a little bemused by the Foundation’s choices in the fields I know something about, that is, literature, journalism, and writing generally. The first group, chosen in 1981, included poets A.R. Ammons, Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott, and Robert Penn Warren, fiction writer James McPherson, and public scientists Robert Coles and Stephen Jay Gould. That’s right, the usual (distinguished) subjects, and a clear case of the rich getting richer.
Obviously, talent/merit/genius is the biggest factor in the selection process. Beyond that, it seems to me that fame and university or similar employment should mildly count against you. Conversely, the Foundation should look especially kindly on people whose work is expensive, like filmmakers, as opposed to poets and novelists, who can ply their trade in a corner of the bedroom. (Sorry if that sounds harsh, but jealousy does strange things to a fellow.)
In the FAQ, the Foundation does say something along these lines:
Emphasis is placed on nominees for whom our support would relieve limitations that inhibit them from pursuing their most innovative ideas.
And, as time has passed, the selections have gotten a bit more adventurous. One of this year’s Fellows is investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell, to me an outstanding choice, since his amazing work is expensive yet minimally remunerative. There are also photojournalist Lynsey Addario and documentary filmmaker James Longley, neither of those whose works are known to me (that’s a good thing). On the other hand, renowned short story writer Deborah Eisenberg is on the faculty of the University of Virginia, and novelist Edwidge Danticat is pretty much the definition of a critics’ darling.
I’m curious: if you (and by that I mean you many readers out there) work in or are knowledgeable about a branch of science or the arts peopled by MacArthur Fellows, what do you think about the selections over the years?