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:
Ta-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.
Ben 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.