A fascinating piece by Mark Scheffler in today’s Crain’s Chicago Business, titled “Genius grants don’t pay off in literature,” concludes that the MacArthur Foundation isn’t getting a reasonable return on its investment in literary artists:
As part of a program widely known as genius grants, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation most years gives one or more authors $500,000, hoping financial freedom will help the writers produce their best work.
An examination of the program, however, reveals that most of the 31 writers chosen since 1981 as MacArthur Fellows had already hit their artistic peak. That conclusion is supported by the 14 major awards — either a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award or PEN/Faulkner prize — and 37 minor awards the authors received before getting their MacArthur money.
Surveying book reviews, author profiles and the opinions of literary scholars, Crain’s 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.
With regard to productivity, Scheffler doesn’t hesitate to separate the dogs from the darlings, as they say on Wall Street. Among the former are Sandra Cisneros (one book in 11 years), Norman Manea (two books in 12), Octavia Butler (one book in 9), and Bette Howland (zero books in 10). Darlings include Richard Powers (six books in 16 years).
MacArthur program director Daniel Socolow delivers this ringing defense of his fellows: “I haven’t seen anything from anyone that has led me to be disappointed,” Mr. Socolow says, “primarily because I haven’t followed (the recipients) too closely.”
In the end, Scheffler finds fault not with the grantees but with the grantor. The nominating system, he notes, has long been called into question. What’s more, “Writers are mostly chosen too late in their careers, average age 48, and well after the literary establishment has recognized them for excellence.”
Elsewhere he notes, “The lack of curiosity and follow-up [at MacArthur] flies in the face of current philanthropic practice. Charities, more and more, are seeking to measure the results of their giving and to make adjustments to increase its effectiveness, adopting a more disciplined, businesslike approach.”