2015’s Literary Geniuses

September 29, 2015 | 7 books mentioned 16 2 min read

This year’s “Genius grant” winners have been announced. The MacArthur grant awards $625,000 “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:

covercoverTa-Nehisi Coates has been a widely read journalist for years, but Coates’s 2014 piece for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations” was a masterpiece of longform journalism that introduced him to many new readers. In it, he portrayed the idea of reparations for slavery, so often painted as a “fringe” solution, as not just plausible but utterly compelling and necessary. Riding the wave of that piece and an American public, in the wake of Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere, newly alert to the state of race relations in America, Coates’s publisher Spiegel & Grau pushed up the release date for Between the World and Me. In true Coates form, the book is parts history, polemic, journalism, and memoir, all in the form of an open letter to his teenaged son. Between the World and Me was recently longlisted for the National Book Award and it sits atop our Top Ten list. Our own Sonya Chung wrote an essay about the sometimes tone deaf reaction to the bestseller. Coates’s first book, a memoir called The Beautiful Struggle, was released in 2008.

covercovercoverBen Lerner is the lone novelist to be honored by the Macarthur Foundation this year (though he is also an accomplished poet and critic). He is best known for his decidedly metafictional novels, featuring protagonists that are mirrors of the author. Of his 2014 novel 10:04, we wrote:

If works of art were about something, instead of existing self-sufficiently for themselves, this is what Lerner’s work would be about: the chasm between a life lived and a thing made; the discouragement one suffers when trying to find one in the other.

Lerner also featured in our Year in Reading in 2014. His 2011 debut novel was Leaving the Atocha Station, and he has published three collections of poetry: Mean Free Path, Angle of Yaw, and The Lichtenberg Papers

In its announcement, MacArthur says poet Ellen Bryant Voigt’s work meditates “on will and fate and the life cycles of the natural world while exploring the expressive potential of both lyric and narrative elements.” She has published eight collections, and the most complete introduction to her work is probably Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2007.

Finally, the lone playwright to be named a “genius” this year is none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda (he is also a composer and performer). His genre-making musical Hamilton has become a smash hit. This New Yorker profile of Miranda is a great introduction to the man and his work.

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  1. Ben Lerner deserves it for being a good writer and let’s face it, Coates (as much as I think he’s ridiculous sometimes) deserves it. Good for them.

  2. Of course, the stuff about art and the art world is literally the worst parts of Ben Lerner. Less stuff about “the chasm between a life lived and a thing made” and more stuff about writers turning into octopuses.

  3. Josef — do you mean “Swamplandia”? It took me some time to remember the real name of the book, so I guess that speaks volumes.

  4. Yeah, Swamplandia. Actually, my comment was possibly the meanest thing I’ve ever said on this website.

    Sorry for bringing down the vibe, everyone :(

    That said, I’m surprised Roxanne Gay never won a Genius Award. That seems like it would have been a shoe-in. She may have missed her moment though.

    As far as Coates goes… I can’t really say anything because I haven’t read the book. Every time I go to click “Buy” I start thinking about how worked up the NYTimes people got over it, and then, I just can’t do it. I can’t click “Buy.” It seems like to do so would be a giant waste of my time. I say to myself, “could anything that gets David Brooks that upset be of actual importance?” And then I look at the people who came running to attack David Brooks, and it’s just too much.

  5. Josef you are not wrong – I would also think that Gay would win it, not because she’s a good writer but because she’s on the correct side politically (and very far on that side). I can’t imagine the MacArthur Grant (or any major award) going to a conservative, actually. It’s just not done.

  6. Don’t know the work of the playwright or the poet but Coates and Lerner are horrible choices. The one is already a #1 NY Times Best Seller so I would hope the committee selecting these things would have awarded the genius grant to someone who actually needed the money (also, Coates is a hypocrite and viciously hate-filled racist who screams like a lunatic in a way that if the races were reversed and some purported “public intellectual” was widely and haphazardly degrading “black people” the way Coates says “white people,” they would never work again). Lerner is a gimmicky bastard whose poetic chops are not unsubstantial but to call him a “novelist” is a joke and a affront to the form, in reality he isn’t much better than Lena Dunham, Sheila Heti, Miranda July or the other wave of entitled millennial navel gazers. But hey, maybe Voigt and Miranda are legitimate geniuses so I’m glad to have the opportunity to look into their work when I have time. It’s hard for any organization, even the MacArthur grants, to bat a thousand. Over half a million dollars to Coates who doesn’t need it and Lerner’s smarmy behind is a disgrace though.

  7. There’s a very sapient saying we have in German: Those who have, will be given. The same applies to our literary awards and grants here in Switzerland: a stipend for those who already earn handily from their publishers.
    [On a surrealistically related note: the disgraced, ex-VW CEO might be getting a cool 24millions as a farewell tip…]

  8. @Sean H

    “a hypocrite and viciously hate-filled racist”

    Tell us how you really feel!

    The opprobrium being lobbed about in this thread is uncalled for. Yes, it’s a stupid name for a big prize. Bunch of real critical thinkers up in here.

  9. Critical thinking is why we have a desire to turn back upon it’s perpetrators this ray of contempt for the American reading public.

  10. I am in the midst of reading Coates now. It seems he has hit a nerve, at least for Sean H., which is fine. It is amazing how many writers he dissed within a single post. I wonder if he writes and, if he does, is he better than Lena Dunham and co.

  11. I do write but I’m also a professor and, honestly, the average college upperclassmen English major at a halfway decent school has more writing ability than Dunham, Heti or July. They’re literally terrible, part of the “famous for no reason” cult that has taken over America. I think Coates’ ideology is absolutely divisive, noxious and deluded but the guy has legitimate journalistic chops and even though I wholeheartedly disagree with him, his ability to put together words and images is not at all dismissible. And Lerner has to get his head out of this quasi-memoir phase of his career but his poetry is no joke. He’s a real talent, he just needs to do what he does best and be a poet instead of thinking he’s some sort of prose writer. Young notoriety, as David Foster Wallace has talked about, is often the worst thing for a writer.

  12. I really like Ben Lerner’s books of poetry, and I was happy for him when I heard that he got the big cash prize. But I also suspect that he would not have been anywhere near that list of winners if he had not written two books of prose. His poetry is outstanding, but I have yet to warm up to his prose. Writing both is a crossover that is very hard to master, even for the most talented of authors. At least in my opinion.

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