2013’s Literary Geniuses

September 25, 2013 | 5 books mentioned 16 2 min read

This year’s “Genius grant” winners have been announced. The MacArthur grant awards $625,000 — up from $500,000 — “no strings attached” to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Alongside, scientists, artists and scholars are some newly minted geniuses with a literary focus. This year’s literary geniuses are:

covercovercoverKaren Russell has been a name to watch in literature ever since her story “Haunting Olivia” appeared in the New Yorker’s Debut Fiction issue in 2005, just shy of her 25th birthday. That story would be collected in St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, which made her name as literary writer known for imbuing her stories with fantasy and supernatural elements. She would follow up with novel Swamplandia!, and this year’s collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove, which has done some time on our Top Ten list this year, most recently in July. We’ve interviewed Russell twice at The Millions. In 2011, she discussed her genre-straddling tendencies as a writer: “I had a lot of fun writing Swamplandia! because it felt like I could juggle different kinds of worlds. And I feel like in life we’re all sort of operating in different registers all the time.” This year, she elaborated further, “What’s attractive to me about those stories is in a way they feel so much more honest and so much closer to the real deep and uncanny experience of being alive. They now have this emotional vocabulary to talk about how really freaking weird it is to live any average Tuesday. In addition, it’s exciting to be the arbiter of a whole world.”

covercovercoverDonald Antrim is not a household name but he is revered among writers as an incisive memoirist and creator of experimental novels. He debuted with Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World and followed it up with The Hundred Brothers and The Verificationist. The three books were re-issued in 2011 and 2012 with new introductions by none other than Jeffrey Eugenides, George Saunders, and Jonathan Franzen. His memoir, The Afterlife, came in 2006. Last year, after diving into Antrim’s three re-issued novels, our own Lydia Kiesling wrote, “I suspect it’s not so much a function of age that has these books reappearing now. Rather, someone out there knew they hadn’t had their fair shake. They knew there were people who needed these novels — frustrated people and weird people and people who prefer a very correct, very unusual deployment of the English language: formal but personal, arch, hilarious, possessed of a slightly antiquarian flavor. Even very great writers don’t often write like this.”

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. $625K to Karen Russell? Really? When did we start equating “quirk” with genius? And I don’t even particularly dislike her or her work. It’s sort of OK, a bit precious, but never did I think she was anywhere near the level of a MacArthur. Antrim I don’t know well enough to comment but I did very much enjoy his story “Another Manhattan.” Guess I’ll have to try one of the novels now. Wow, though, they seem so young, particularly Russell. There’s potential there maybe, but I thought these were supposed to go to incendiary literary talents, just imposing, brilliant creatives or critics. Lethem, Saunders, Ryan, Hickey, Carson, Davis. That pedigree just isn’t where most people in the literary world would rank Karen Russell. Sorry.

  2. William Gaddis won one of the first MacArthurs. Now Karen Russell has won one of the latest. Says a lot about the course of American letters over the last 30+ years.

  3. Russell’s literary worth notwithstanding: How much good is done if you give an established writer 650,000 as compared to giving it to someone who is promising, upcoming and possibly still struggling?

  4. The choice of Russell is a bit of a headscratcher. But hey, at least I learned that Antrim finally has some new fiction on the way.

  5. Morgan – Diaz last year is a frighteningly similar situation. A youngish insanely-hyped writer with one novel and some short stories to his/her name who happens to be one of the few writers in the country who makes good money writing. I sense a pattern. Early guesses for 2014 “geniuses”: Tea Obreht or Chad Harbach.

    Can’t really tell the MacArthur folks how to spend their money, but it’s tantamount to handing money to a CEO rather than donating to a charity.

  6. Cormac McCarthy in 1981 really was the perfect selection. Totally worthy recipient and the money probably made a substantial difference in his quality of life.

    Even better was Andre Dubus, who, after his paralysis, was under a mountain of medical bills. Another totally worthy recipient, if maybe not on the same level as McCarthy.

  7. RR- Tea Obreht, haha, that’s a good one.

    Sadly I’m guessing that Vegas will be going with you on that one.

  8. I agree with many of the posters above; am not sure that Russell is a good choice for a “genius” grant. Seems odd to me. I did not find Swamplandia all that earthshatterering or groundbreaking. There must be tons of other more viable/sensible candidates. Anyone care to throw out a few suggestions?

  9. It occurs to me that if 125,000 MFA graduates (there must be that many by now) each coughed up a mere 10 bucks a year they could collectively recognize exactly the writing geniuses that Macarthur overlooks, two of them every year.

    If The Millions asked readers of The Millions to nominate two names each for Macarthur fellowships (which I think they ought to do), and 100 readers responded, how many names in total do you suppose we’d have on that longlist? 150? 175?

    Person 1: “For me any list that doesn’t begin and end with Craig Clevenger and Jonathan Baumbach is just insane, end of story.”

    Person 2: “For me any list that doesn’t begin and end with Maureen McHugh and Kate Zambreno is just insane, end of story.”

    Person 3: “I think Tao Lin is doing the most interesting work right now, and he always seems to be wanting for drugs so he must need the money. Also Jess Walter, I only read one book last year (lot of stuff going on, long story) and that wasn’t it but it was kinda popular but he’s also like kinda literary.”

    I might not have picked these two. You might not have picked these two. But put us together with everyone else, we might very well pick these two. In the end, if we want to recognize our own vision of a genius, we’ll need the resources to back it up.

  10. The comments about KR receiving the Genius grant are deflating. The main difference between Russell and someone like William Gaddis is accessibility. I think the late David Foster-Wallace (also a Genius grant recipient) was concerned that the “trendy” pyrotechnics of the post-modernists, of which Gaddis could be argued as the ur-post-modernist, offered only a critique and no real hope or solution. I wouldn’t be surprised if Russell uses the money to help her research more familial/cultural history of the U.S., like McCarthy did with his Genius grant, writing Blood Meridian. Additionally, we would all benefit from hearing another quality female author’s opinion.

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