2016’s Literary Geniuses

September 22, 2016 | 5 books mentioned 43 3 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:

covercoverMaggie Nelson is known best for her non-fiction. Often described as some combination of “lyrical” and “philosophical,” Nelson’s five book-length works of nonfiction have won her a steadfast following. She might be described as a “writer’s writer.” The evidence is in how often her books are named by other writers in our annual Year in Reading series. Bluets, a meditation on the color blue, won praise from David Shields (“utterly brilliant”), Stephen Elliott (“excellent”), Haley Mlotek (“I read Bluets twice in the same plane ride.”), Leslie Jamison, Jaquira Díaz, and Margaret Eby. Meaghan O’Connell wrote of Nelson, “She is one of those people for me, writers who I want to cross all boundaries with, writers from whom I ask too much. She makes me want more than, as a reader, I deserve. She already gives us more than we deserve. It isn’t fair.” Many of the above writers also praised Nelson’s more recent The Argonauts, “a genre-bending memoir,” as did Bijan Stephen, Olivia Laing (“It thinks deeply and with immense nuance and grace”), Karolina Waclawiak (“I found myself underlining on nearly every page”), and Parul Sehgal. Nelson herself appeared in our Year in Reading last year, shining light on books by Eileen Myles and Ellen Miller, among others.

coverClaudia Rankine, poet, has received especially wide acclaim for her “provocative meditation on race” Citizen: An American Lyric, a book that (perhaps along with Between the World and Me by last year’s “Genius” Ta-Nehisi Coates) that can be pointed to as a literary catalyst. Many may have first become aware of Rankine earlier this year, when her book — wielded as an object of protest — was caught by cameras behind a ranting Donald Trump at one of his rallies. MacArthur rightly describes Rankine as “a critical voice in current conversations about racial violence.” Ed Simon named Citizen this moment’s best candidate in his search for America’s great epic poem.

coverIn its announcement, MacArthur says artist and writer Lauren Redniss “is an artist and writer seamlessly integrating artwork, written text, and design elements in works of visual nonfiction. Redniss undertakes archival research, interviews and reportage, and field expeditions to inform every aspect of a book’s creation, from its text, to its format and page layout, to the design of the typeface, to the printing and drawing techniques used for the artwork.” Redniss is probably best-known for 2011 National Book Award finalist Radioactive, a vibrantly illustrated biography of pioneering scientists Marie and Pierre Curie. Our own Hannah Gersen described it as “elaborately beautiful.”

covercovercoverGene Luen Yang has smashed stereotypes with his vibrant graphic novels, American Born Chinese, The Eternal Smile (with Derek Kirk Kim), and Boxers & Saints. Our 2010 interview with Yang explored his influences and his work.

The lone playwright to be named a “genius” this year is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. “Many of Jacobs-Jenkins’s plays use a historical lens to satirize and comment on modern culture, particularly the ways in which race and class are negotiated in both private and public settings.”

Sarah Stillman has become a byline to look for in The New Yorker, carrying out journalistic investigations that have raised public outrage and spurred recalcitrant politicians into action. “Taken” is perhaps her best-known article. It investigates how local police forces have used the principal of “civil asset forfeiture” to plunder citizens and enrich themselves.

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  1. The worse the establishment behaves the more and more it sees to it that it awards prizes to those pointing out the egregious behavior of the establishment. This is how the establishment lets itself off the hook for what it does. Real social change doesn’t happen because of books or poems. It happens because people go out into the street and fucking fight for what they want. That’s the only way. You can keep your ‘geniuses’ and shove them up your ass.

  2. Yeah I would’ve much preferred the Mac go to a navel-gazer writing about writing about writing in Park Slope. Quit caring about the world, writers, and focus on what’s important: you!

  3. False dichotomy, Snud. No one is asking for more Brooklyn lit. I’m just pointing out something obvious: the worse things get the more those who point out how worse things are getting are given money and awards to take the pressure off from making actual changes. Safety valve literature.

  4. I love how idiots use terms like “Social Justice Warrior” and “feminist” as pejorative terms. FaceBook, Twitter and Reddit have destroyed your cognitive abilities.

  5. Anon, yeah I’m sure Rankine’s Macarthur grant is going to make BLM say, okay, our work here is done. After the next black man is killed at the hands of a cop, the police chief’s gonna say, Look, we already gave Rankine a Macarthur grant, nothing to see here.

  6. Toad!

    Truly funny comment but I think Anon’s comment implies a range of demographics targeted by multifarious pacifying strategies… BLM is a release-valve aimed primarily at people other than, say, those who follow the twists and turns of the MacArthur fairy.

    I mean, it’s hard not to notice that, on the one hand, many Americans seem to feel that “America” stands, at its core, for all the best values… while the evidence of these values being put into actual practise (vs Native Genocide to Slavery to dozens of wars of aggression …Google “List of wars involving the United States” …to paid-leave-for-murder-cops)… is rather skimpy. There is a Virtual America that is Virtuous and I think that it exists as a reflection of these well-meant, well-rewarded books… and various well-meant TV programs and movies et al. Oh, and flat out propaganda.

    Think of that big ANTI-BULLY trend on Facebook a while back… a noble sentiment, to be sure, but scaldingly ironic when you consider America’s global record of bullying countries with weak, or nonexistent, armies. Lots of belligerent talk when it comes to North Korea or Russia, but no real line-crossing because they’ve got real armies, eh? And, again: lots of high-minded talk about Gun Control… but… not much about drone control. Or gun control for cops.

    So why do so many Americans still maintain this fundamentally positive notion of American Society and Progress therein? I think Anon addresses that question.

    PS If BLM is any more effective than OWS was, I’ll be stunned enough to convert from Agnosticism to Christianity. Because I’m fairly sure both are/were clever diversions away from the root causes of their respective issues. If you have to assert that Black Lives Matter, you’ve already lost the debate, IMO. Maybe start a movement called TRIGGER-HAPPY-COPS-MUST-DO-HARD-FUCKING-TIME-IN-PRISON or something. Not as catchy but more to the point.

  7. Toad: your comment is directed towards someone else, not me. I’m not implying anything along the lines of what you are saying I’m implying. I think Rankine and Nelson are wonderful writers and what is going on with police and African Americans right now is absolutely vile and makes me think that all the KKK and Aryan Nation did was pick up shop and re-located to your local police force. All I’m saying is that awards like this are to placate the bourgeoisie, to make them feel as if progress is being made, when the exact opposite is true. We are backsliding. But these grants help those in the publishing industry feel as if they are doing their part in soothing the division in this country, when, if fact, their very existence, their very lifestyle, is part of the problem. Handing out these grants lessen the anxiety and guilt for those who hand them out. Pointing towards a book of essays or poems and saying, “Look, we’re doing our part,” is a futile and meaningless gesture. The very people who hand out these grants are the people who also feel it is necessary to have protection from the very people they are supposedly in solidarity with. If that needs to be explained then I don’t know what to tell you.

  8. “awards like this are to placate the bourgeoisie”

    The bourgeoisie are blissfully unaware of the MacArthurs. The only people who know/care about which writers win a grant are the type of people who argue about it in the comment section of a literary site.

    The MacArthur Fdn gives out a shitload of money, most of which is outside the literary realm (your comments about these grants being a product of the “publishing industry” would imply you don’t really understand what the MacArthurs are) and has been doing so since the late 70s. Isn’t money a decent way to fight problems? (Spoiler alert: in a capitalist society, hell yes). Famed social justice warriors William Gaddis, Cormac McCarthy,and Karen f-ing Russell have been given grants.

    Your solution seems to be…well I’m not sure. Stop giving talented people money? Okay, fine.

    I feel your rage toward the American System, I really do, but attacking the MacArthur grants as some boogeyman is just silly. They aren’t stopping a single person from “go[ing] out into the street and fucking fight[ing] for what they want”. Though, I gotta ask – when did you find the time to take a break from all the fucking fighting to write these comments?

  9. “Isn’t money a decent way to fight problems?”

    It’s great for fighting malaria, building dams and digging wells. But those aren’t the kinds of problems the thread appears to be arguing about.

    “Though, I gotta ask – when did you find the time to take a break from all the fucking fighting to write these comments?”

    The world we live in is made, essentially, of Public Opinion. If the Masses don’t go along with it, it’s difficult to make it stick. How are the Masses herded from one worldview to another? Brainwashing via Mass Media. “Fighting” in the streets is wholly expected, easily countered and ultimately meaningless (as the 1960s taught us). But making a concerted effort to counter the Brainwashing (whether or not the attempt is a futile effort) makes sense, at least. Which is why Dissent is so often disparaged.

  10. Steve

    Thanks for the response. You seem to be saying racism, social injustice, et al cannot be attacked by money but by a “concerted effort” (not sure what specifically that means). But doesn’t the Mac grant essentially pay people to make this effort? I.e. give them the financial security to be able to dedicate themselves to their cause, whatever it may be?

    I’m just (respectfully) baffled that, of all the things to be upset about, the MacArthur grants? Really? Y’all are verging dangerously close to tinfoil-hat territory here with your Capitalized Concepts and Vague Boogeymen (Mass Media, bourgeoisie, establishment…).

  11. Toad:

    “You seem to be saying racism, social injustice, et al cannot be attacked by money but by a “concerted effort” (not sure what specifically that means).”

    1) The concerted effort I refer to involves, first of all, careful thinking. Exotic stuff, I know. Meanwhile, please show me how we’ve managed to eradicate (or put a dent in) Racism after 40 years of Mac grants… or any other method (from a carefully-proscribed selection) of which you approve.

    2) Is there no Mass Media? If there is a Mass Media, does it reflect the goals and interests of the wealthy who own its apparatus, or does it reflect and/or promote the antithetical interests of the poor/powerless? If the Mass Media is an imaginary concept… and if the Masses are an imaginary concept… and if the possibly-imaginary Masses don’t take many of their social cues and general opinions from the Mass Media, I stand corrected. It’s very possible that the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer (while the poor continue to believe that they, too, will strike it rich one day)… and more divided/ Xenophobic… owing entirely to a series of well-timed coincidences.

    3) Which do you think is the more vacuous, philosophically-speaking… capitalizing terms to emphasize them… or jabbing at these terms with mouth-breathing schoolyard slanders (like “tin foil hat”) in lieu of actual arguments?

    Oops: did I forget to spin my critique with a folksy “ya’ll”?

  12. First of all: dude, chill out. I tried to be respectful in my response (hence the terms “thanks” and “respectfully”) but this wouldn’t be the first time my internet tone has been misconstrued. And I thought your liberal sensibilities could withstand the “tinfoil hat” barb but apparently not. Anyhow:

    1) Please show me how racism has gotten worse due to 40 years of Mac grants. I’m not saying Mac grants are the solution to racism. I’m saying Mac grants are not the problem.
    2) If you believe every member of the media in this country is part of some secret cabal to promote the interests of the wealthy, that’s fine. We will agree to disagree. From my perspective, there are significant media problems in this country (this election cycle has laid bare some of those). Unfortunately, though, the issue is more complicated than “we are all sheep brainwashed by the media” and change will require more nuance of thought.
    3) Isn’t “mouth-breathing” a slander? Anyway I’ve repeated the same actual argument several times on this thread: the MacArthur grants aren’t the problem. And in fact the MacArthurs promote the very “careful thinking” you are advocating by paying people to do their (usually socially-conscious) thing.

  13. Toad:

    “Unfortunately, though, the issue is more complicated than “we are all sheep brainwashed by the media” and change will require more nuance of thought.”

    Yes, and I propose that all of our comments here are scaled to the proportions of a comment thread and not a scholarly study; ie, your point, there, which goes without saying, is unnecessary. On the other hand, the bit that goes ““we are all sheep brainwashed by the media” is a very good place to start.

    What do you know (beyond the Chomsky book) about Propaganda? Do you think its use on Americans, by American Institutions, is a myth? Do you think the overwhelming majority of Americans come by their opinions and attitudes organically?


    1) Institutional Philanthropy (grants, fellowships, awards, stipends, scholarships, et al), is not made of value-free, spontaneous manifestations of Disinterested Benevolence. It’s a form of Wealthy Self-Expression (whether the Self in question is a private plutocrat or a Corporate Entity) and is a means to an end. Sometimes “we” approve of the end (if we understand what it is) and sometimes, perhaps, we wouldn’t (if we knew what it was). For more detailed reading on that, you can Google Joanne Barkan’s “Plutocrats at Work: How Big Philanthropy Undermines Democracy”. Interesting essay (probably not for you but for others reading this).

    In any case, all that only sounds as “conspiratorial” as any analysis of any practise or organization, involving vast amounts of money, that goes any deeper than the organization’s press releases. Nefarious or not, there are always agendas and the rarest (by a great distance) are the purely “selfless” ones. Any adult who has been paying attention will know that by now.

    2) My larger point dovetails with Anon’s original comment: “we” have a tendency to favor feel-good, palliative (or placebo) treatments for Very Big Psycho-Social Diseases… we tend to address the symptoms and avoid/ ignore/ disguise the obvious causes of these serious problems.

    Because, sometimes, the causes of these big problems work to the benefit of powerful actors in control of public discourse (ie, if you’re a 1%er, you can probably appreciate the advantage of establishing the permanent underclass as a boogie-man/ enemy/ Other instead of letting the 1%ers play the same role, as they did, for example, during the early 20th century… when Socialism was threatening to become a dangerously mainstream thought experiment).

    Well-meaning, award-winning books (as cited by the OP) make us feel good… they give us a sense that the problems are being addressed and, even better, that The System has a built-in mechanism for auto-correction. Therefore, how bad can The System be? But my point is that we are given, on the one hand, these celebrated books confronting Racism/ Sexism/ Pathological Class Inequalities…. and, on the other, wildly popular entertainments promulgating Racism/ Sexism/ Pathological Class Inequalities. And the latter far outnumber the former and make lots more money. And they’re lots more fun.

    In a nutshell: we want to address Racism? How about taking a closer look at the movies/ video games/ pop music/ TV series promoting it? And the jaw-dropping levels of segregation consolidating it? And the players who benefit most from it.

    Against which a few award-winning books are… not much. And, coincidentally, these noble placebo-publications are brought to you by the loss-making subsidiaries of the conglomerates bringing you Blockbuster Racism / Sexism/ Pathological Class Inequality and War.

    See how that (possibly) works?

    Or don’t.

    PS Excuse my snippy comments, previously, but I’m always irritated by comment-thread responses that affect a measured, courteous air, initially… only to reveal a tiny dagger or two by the end. Tiresome.

  14. “And, coincidentally, these noble placebo-publications are brought to you by the loss-making subsidiaries of the conglomerates bringing you Blockbuster Racism / Sexism/ Pathological Class Inequality and War.
    See how that (possibly) works?”

    Well, no, considering Rankine and Nelson are both published by indies (Graywolf, Wave).

    Srsly you make a good case about racism but if you wanna get real deep let’s talk about how “grant culture” is responsible for institutional sexism and the income inequality that has been growing in the USA since the late 70s – same time the McArthurs came about – COINCIDENCE? I think not.

  15. Toad:

    “Well, no, considering Rankine and Nelson are both published by indies (Graywolf, Wave)”

    Har! Graywolf is not exactly working out of some Hippie’s VW van, if that’s what you’re hoping to imply:

    “Graywolf Press has established itself as one of the nation’s leading nonprofit literary publishers through collaborations with organizations such as the College of Saint Benedict, the Mellon Foundation, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux of New York, New York.”


    “In 1999, McCrae won a $1 million grant by promising to take Graywolf to “yet another level.” A couple of years later, they raised another $1 million with a detailed capital plan”.

    I keep promising to take myself to “another level” but that million hasn’t materialized. But Graywolf publishes a fellow who the Black Agenda Report refers to as “favored spokesnegro Ta Nehesi Coates”, so… yeah. I see how the Graywolf business plan works.

    (Hey, Toad: seriously: how old are you? Late 20s? Early 30s?)

    Speaking of “coincidences”:

    40 years ago, the revelation that the Paris Review was a front for the CIA, funded by the CIA and guided into existence by CIA asset Peter Matthiessen (whose great luck with literary awards looks a little different in light of the revelation) went largely unnoticed. The “rumour” surfaced again this century and Matthiessen even confessed, eventually (though Plimpton feigned innocence until the end) , causing quite a stir which was, nevertheless, apparently, quickly forgotten.

    Cut to: Michel Houellebecq writes (crappily) the most Islamophobic (mainstream) book in 50 years: Submission, which is published, in Paris, serendipitously, mere hours before the Charlie Hebdo event, at the height of the anti-Islam hysteria preceding attempts, again, to justify invading Syria. And the book (an instant and very big hit, as one expects) is translated into English by… wait for it… the editor in chief of our old friend, The Paris Review! ( Lorin Stein). The Paris Review, which just LOVES Houellebecq and promotes him tirelessly. It was in the stars, you see! All about Literary Quality and not about Geopolitics at all.

    If you’re not a total dupe (or say, 27) it’s fairly hilarious.

  16. Just want to say congratulations to the winners. Re the police being akin to the KKK, tell that to the 5 Dallas police officers murdered during BLM protest in July, and to the police man who shielded the black woman with his body. Problems in U.S. justice system exist, to blame it on police is ridiculous. It is as dumb as a Trump rally. I have worked in policing in Canada for 30 years and see men and women serve and protect selflessly everyday, with little thanks and absolute scrutiny. Who are you going to call when someone is breaking into your house? Re police on paid leave after a shooting, innocence is a given until proven guilty in a court of law. Also literature can effect change, look at the marvelous young woman reading Rankine at a trump rally. Be more like her.
    @moemurph, god love ya.

  17. The sure fire way to diagnose a paranoid is someone who builds bridges over unbridgeable gaps.

    Graywolf –> CIA –> Houellebecq

    I’m still laughing. Then again I’m 32 which is too young to have intelligent opinions so carry on Captain Reynolds Wrap (saw an ad once & got Brainwashed).

  18. “Real social change doesn’t happen because of books or poems.”

    What a strange opinion on this website, of all places! I suppose nobody ever changed their mind because of WEB DuBois, or Alex Haley, or Toni Morrison. The Autobiography of Malcolm X didn’t change anything. Native Son didn’t make anyone think twice. I wonder, though, what inspires people to take to the streets in the first place. Just comes outta nowhere, I guess.

  19. @Fred

    “Then again I’m 32 which is too young to have intelligent opinions”

    Oh, you can be intelligent at 32 and many often are but you will also be rather conveniently naive. As demonstrated by the gaps you bridged in the phony syllogism of your comment. Call it a bridge of straw.

    A) I didn’t claim Graywolf is a front for the CIA. Are you under the impression that the CIA is the only naughty business on Earth?
    B) I claimed that The Paris Review was a front for the CIA. Would you like a link to Peter Matthiessen confessing, on camera, that the Paris Review was started/funded as a front for the CIA?
    C) The “former” front for the CIA is promoting the anti-Islam Houellebecq and its Ed, Lorin Stein, translated Houellebecq’s anti-Islam book. And that is hilarious.

    Which one of those statements is untrue?

    The surefire way to diagnose a callow 32-year-old is to gauge his reaction to the truth about Santa. Also: The Easter Bunny. Upsetting, Fred?

  20. @Heather

    “Who are you going to call when someone is breaking into your house?”

    In America? When you’re Black? Are you joking?

    “Re police on paid leave after a shooting, innocence is a given until proven guilty in a court of law.”

    What a perfect set up for the most obvious and utterly poignant joke.

    Think, Heather. Think.

    Now: what was ironic about that comment of yours… ?

  21. I am trying Steven. Help me see the irony. Perhaps being Canadian, population only 30 million, with less poverty and better social services, we don’t have the same problems as the U.S. But I can’t for the life of me understand how one can say that literature cannot effect change, or that the police are an extension of the KKK. Is my head that firmly in the sand? ARE the police KKK, all of them hating blacks with the sole goal of killing them? Is every black police officer an “uncle Tom”? Is literature useless in the battle against absurdity?

  22. @Heather

    My two bits and than I’m on my bike and outta here.

    I wish this forum were ideal for debating ideas in great depth; I wish the year (in this era of TL; DR) were. In discussions like these, lots of interrelated ideas are debated at once, in clumps, when they really should be teased apart and addressed separately, each in its turn. Here’s a cursory attempt:

    In the US, the police are largely an oppressive force for “minorities”. Certainly, there are exceptions, but no one with skin any darker than “swarthy”, in the USA, seems to make it to college age without a story, regarding an encounter with the police, that his/her paler friends may not entirely believe or understand. And plenty of Whites have these experiences, too… (though they’re usually working class). Experiences vary according to region, possibly. But they are undeniable.

    And they are a reflection of the fact that Americans are saturated in Racism from birth. Incredibly, there are plenty who would deny this… the denial is so entrenched it seems congenital. There is that Racism and there is also the fact that the increasingly paramilitary police were never, in America, at the best of times, hired to protect that poor against the wealthy.

    The police in the USA are an awful lot like the Constitution, which came into existence without the Human Rights of the Poor in mind… if we Serfs benefit, occasionally, now and then, it’s a happy accident. Call it Collateral Benefit. But just as every poor, dark-skinned kid with an education knows the Constitution wasn’t written with her/him in mind, they know the Police weren’t hired to serve and protect the poor. But they can and WILL kill you. With impunity, most of the time. Empirical Evidence says so.

    And, guess what, Heather? You’ll think I’m lying but I’m not: my brother’s a cop. After all those years on the force (in a major American city, I won’t say where), he’s unrecognizable to me. He started off wanting/trying to be Officer Friendly. Not any more. The culture and mindset are deeply corrupt. His colleagues, Black and White, are macho Racists with a weird twist of lower-middle-class Classism. Total contempt for the dehumanized poor.


    My point in entering this conversation was to agree with “Anon” (and because I’m a little bored/ fed up with The Millions’ uncritical pimping and cheerleading; the targets they pick for critique… Patterson novels and teens who scribble in books… are telling, no?) … my take on his take being that America likes patting itself on the back for “addressing the issues” and “struggling for progress” when, in fact, Americans, quite often, take the easy way out and dodge the core of the discussion and perform the kind of sleight-of-hand that gets everybody off the hook and maintains the status quo.

    America is teetering on the brink of an atomized Civil War (skirmishes breaking out, willy-nilly, all over the country)… how can we talk about “progress”, on the matter of Race, in light of that fact? THAT’S absurd.

    Too often, bestselling books about Race help us *avoid* the discussion and confrontation, because the book becomes a sort of “Racial Progress” talisman as ultimately meaningless as The First Black President was. Read the website called Black Agenda Report… a radical site. Often pretty good. They see right through the Black “Misleaders” appointed to their positions to maintain the status quo. Just like the Kapos did in old school Germany.

    One example of the diversionary nature of one of the MacArthured books on the list: Claudia Rankine got her 625K Mac, right? And that’s great news for Claudia Rankine, but the book (a copy of which I own, which claim I can prove by transcribing bits from all over the book) cannot and will not heal/ change/ re-contextualize America’s Racial Sickness. It’s just a book, an okay book (most of it reads like an okay, memoiristic essay on personal experiences of Racism… something you might easily find on a Blog)… it’s even a bit like second-rate David Markson…

    …but as poetry (which it claims to be) it’s… weak. Yes, really, as poetry, I must say: what kind of con is this? But the literary quality is not the point, is it? The book is a talisman that will help to ward off change. Claudia Rankine’s book is a personal howl of pain/anger/depression about North American Racism… and White people gave her a hefty cash prize for it.

    It made whoever awarded it to Ms Rankine feel good, it made Ms. Rankine feel good, it made many readers feel good. But… and some will hate me for this… it was just another example of the sly, supremacist racial psychology of Affirmative Action in Lit.

    It *stabilizes* American racism, it doesn’t dismantle it…. it subliminally entrenches the cliché of Blacks as intellectually mediocre… while pretending to put its shoulder to the wheel of The Struggle. It fixes or even merely confronts NOTHING. And these are the kinds of “Race” books Americans love to lionize. Books that will help them avoid real change; books that are easy to read and swallow. Claudia Rankine had some rough experiences as a Black Woman: and…? You need to add a least a smidgen of literary brilliance to that premise to make it profound…no? Is Claudia Rankine so special that just reading accounts of things that spoiled her day is supposed to CHANGE us? I think that’s nuts.

    No: a book that provokes a Change in the standard transactions of Race or Sex or Class in America will be largely despised. It will be considered deeply offensive. Obscene. A spit in the eye of All That’s Good (if it were ever to see the light of day). That’s how these things work. That’s the unhuggable Truth. Similar to the notion of a True Black Leader: if one ever shows up again, they’ll shoot him before he starts shaving. Or they’ll incarcerate HER before she gives her first speech.

    Now: regarding the CIA and the Plutocratic Agendas behind Foundations and all that (and Media as a control mechanism). There’s no way to go through that quickly. Most people are so shielded from thinking about such things that it’s impossible to make much headway in a comment thread on the topic. There are dozens… hundreds… of scholarly books about Propaganda and the Shepherding of Public Opinion… the psychology of Social Control, the economics of Herdthink, et al. The modern world is just as shaped by the tenets of Mass Psychology, which informs Public Opinion, as it is shaped by the technology delivering Public Opinion to the comment threads. Advertizing/ Brainwashing/ Religion/ Peer Pressure as an Abstraction… it’s all the same. But it’s not my wish to convince anyone of any particularly arcane principles here.

    But I DO want people to have a go at being a little less naive. After all that’s happened, in the 21st century, already, how can so many of us still be so naive?

  23. Everyone knows the Paris Review/CIA thing Steve. It’s not a secret, you don’t need to show me a secret camera confession lol. CIA also funded the Iowa MFA program. What’s hilarious is that you wedged in this 60 year old thing between talking about Graywolf press and Houellie’s latest book. Ramble on, dude.

    Awards, books, culture…it all adds up to racism. We can only fight racism through long lit blog comment sections apparently. Keep fightin’ the good fight, man, one day you’ll find your enemy.

  24. These social justice authors are ephemeral and time will consign them to the out-of-print list but they are being fiscally rewarded while writers who are literally twice as good (if not three or four times as good) as they are live in hovels and barely get published by tiny off-brand publishers. Nelson has some merit but Rankine is pretty horrific, just a bilious racist and ideologue. I mean, in fifty years hardly anyone will remember or care about some poetry book with a hoodie on the cover. Trayvon Martin isn’t 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination, he’s a footnote, sorry, but as sad as his death is and as unjust as it is that Zimmerman didn’t go to prison, that’s the reality. Smart people will be reading the canonical greats and a few contemporary authors (maybe Zink or Gaitskill, maybe Doerr or Tartt, maybe Roth or Morrison, almost surely Stephen King and DFW) while all the dreck like Rankine and Junot and Dandicat and Coates (not to mention all the dreadful and atrocious white/part-white writers, lest anyone think I’m a racist – so Dunham and Cline and Flynn and Gladwell and July and Heti and Eggers ; no one will be reading them either). It’s sad that awards aren’t given based on the merit of the art but that’s the far left and they run these contests.

  25. @Sean

    “(maybe Zink or Gaitskill, maybe Doerr or Tartt, maybe Roth or Morrison, almost surely Stephen King and DFW)”

    Okay, come on now. Are you kidding? Trying to slip him in there, huh…? Out he goes, Sean.

  26. Steven and Sean. Lovely comments, I admire and agree. So much to think about. It is really difficult to connect as humans when we come from such varied backgrounds engendering different world views, even as decent and empathic as we are, so we can only continue to try and fight the good fight, which means open mind and listening. With much respect to you both, and all the commenters, Heather.

  27. Steve, the CIA thing is literally on the PRs Wikipedia page. It’s so common knowledge that even a naive youngster idiot like myself knows about it. So I just love the “if you don’t believe me I’ll show you a videotaped confession”. So great. Thanks for the laffs & be kind.

  28. Sean checking in with some rage! Nice work. I actually know a couple writers that are literally FIVE times better than Rankine and Nelson. So I totally dig. Years ago I said that bilious racists and so called “social” writers such as Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin would never be read in the future and nobody’s heard of any of those so my prophecy has come true. We can mo def agree on Steven King though, what a way with words! Help me settle a dispute though: which is more masterpiece-y: Tommyknockers or Pet Cemetery?

  29. @Fred

    “It’s so common knowledge that even a naive youngster idiot like myself knows about it.”

    Yes, it’s weird Fred, I agree. You “know” it but you seem to have no idea what it means. Interesting inability to put the information in context, rendering it useless. Possibly the point.

    For example:

    “I actually know a couple writers that are literally FIVE times better than Rankine and Nelson. So I totally dig.”

    My comments were essentially that Rankine’s prize/ current position (along with a few others’) have nothing to do with literary merit, that there are other agendas afoot in the awarding of the MacArthur… which is why I mentioned the Paris Review and the CIA (ie: what should have been a venue presenting works chosen on a strictly literary basis was far from that)… and the connection flies right over your head.

    You claim it’s common knowledge that the Paris Review was a CIA front yet accuse me of being “paranoid” for mentioning it. And while admitting you knew, all along, of the Paris Review’s extra-literary history, you think, again, it’s “paranoid” to be suspicious of the Paris Review’s intense involvement with Michel Houellebecq, a not-particularly-brilliant writer who is, conveniently, at a time when the CIA is cultivating Islamophobes, Islamophobic (or appears so).

    Cognitive Dissonance 101?

    But it’s cool that you and Sean and can bond over Stephen King (while admitting that Rankine is not particularly brilliant)! laugh

  30. A classic Steve double-down. Nice. My “inability to put in context” the CIA/PR thing is due to the fact that it does not belong in any context involving Rankine, Nelson, or Houellie because they have nothing to do with one another. So you say “inability”, I say “sanity”.

    I just love the fact that for a conspiracy guy who rails against the media, your big “secret” conspiracy comes from articles in the NYTimes and like Slate. I think your “camera confession” happened on Charlie Rose. The ironies here are so rich.

    I also like how you’ve softened your scalding hot take from “literary awards make racism worse and books don’t effect change” to “literary awards sometimes aren’t given out on merit alone” which I think was the title of a recent Buzzfeed article.

    Never change, Steve, never change.

  31. Fred:

    “I also like how you’ve softened your scalding hot take from “literary awards make racism worse and books don’t effect change” to “literary awards sometimes aren’t given out on merit alone” which I think was the title of a recent Buzzfeed article.”

    I kinda hate to spoon-feed my old comments to you, Fred. But if you’re having trouble reading, I’ll help:

    My early comments were made in agreement with Anon, who made the point that the Award-Winning Literature of Complaint makes it easy for us to take short cuts and end up where no social change has occurred, despite the fact that we feel better about ourselves as a result of the trip. I think Anon said that things are getting worse, Racially, not better, and the Award-Winning Literature of Complaint doesn’t help… it facilitates the decline. I agree with that assessment. I believe that Polarizing Cultural Content that isn’t brilliant enough to earn the disproportionate amount of attention it receives is hurting all of us on matters of Sex/ Race/ Class etc.

    And, yes, I also feel that books about Race that don’t really target the Primary Drivers of Racism (eg: High-Tech Race Propaganda and Segregation) are futile. I said, about Claudia Rankine’s book “Citizen,”, specifically:

    “It *stabilizes* American racism, it doesn’t dismantle it…. it subliminally entrenches the cliché of Blacks as intellectually mediocre… while pretending to put its shoulder to the wheel of The Struggle. It fixes or even merely confronts NOTHING. And these are the kinds of “Race” books Americans love to lionize. Books that will help them avoid real change; books that are easy to read and swallow. Claudia Rankine had some rough experiences as a Black Woman: and…? You need to add a least a smidgen of literary brilliance to that premise to make it profound…no? Is Claudia Rankine so special that just reading accounts of things that spoiled her day is supposed to CHANGE us? I think that’s nuts.”

    Do you disagree with that. Fred? Of course you do. Even if you don’t. Right?

    And that cloak-and-dagger info about the Paris Review is casually available now but most people still aren’t aware of it. Ten years ago very few were. And in the 1960s it was still meant to be rather secret. That’s how these things usually work, Fred. I don’t quite get why you’ve seized on that as some kind of “gotcha”?

    Give it ten years and we’ll be finding out tantalizing little tidbits about “Graywolf” too! (the disclosure curves seem to be accelerating).

    Picture it: cute little Indie press is on the verge of folding; the old Hippie who started it steps down; a hip New Lady from the UK is flown in and: presto: 2 million bucks is donated (too bad the Agha Khan is dead)! Followed by a slew of awards and fantastic sales in the ever-marketable genre of the LYRIC ESSAY! Laugh. And, wouldn’t you know it: many of the books skew toward topics that are consonant with 21st century Social Engineering! Neat.

    Your main problem, Fred, is that you are all COMBAT and not much actual THEORY. Compulsive gainsaying does not make for interesting reading. Neither does the low-threat juvenilia of the perma-sneer you can’t seem to help typing through. Why not come at me with a more entertaining New Avatar next time? Call yourself “Toad” or something…

  32. Believe me, Steve, the pleasure is all on my side of the screen, it’s been wonderful. Thanks for the laffs, thanks for the edutainment and srsly keep fighting the good fight.

  33. You gotta vent some rage from time to time, right? And if you don’t think Stephen King is gonna stand the test of time, hey, maybe you’re right. Or maybe he’s the American Dickens. But anyway, the difference between Baldwin, Wright and Ellison (who I absolutely LOVE, all three of them) and the SJW knuckleheads of today is that those three writers were writing genius levels novels, short stories and essays, not just complaining and griping. They were living during actual oppression. Back when the level of racism in America was highly advanced cancer. Is there still racism in America? Sure, but it’s strep throat at worst. Yeah, it kills a few people every year. Yeah, we should absolutely take it seriously and treat it. But it’s laughable to talk about black people as “oppressed” in 2016 with a sitting black president and more black millionaires, college graduates, professors, award winners, and more interracial coupling, than at any time in the history of America/the world. Fight racism – hell yeah! But there’s so much less of it (just in the last 20 years, much less the last 60) than there used to be that to watch mediocre writers get applause and awards simply for saying “Uh, racism is bad, let’s end racism, white privilege, white supremacy, white people are evil, conservatives are the same as racists, etc etc, etc”) is lunacy.

  34. Sean

    A) Stephen King is a great story-teller who isn’t much of a writer. His books are really just transcriptions of campfire tales; they’re printed because it would be awkward to deliver them in their purest form: coming out of King’s mouth, at midnight, by a campfire. King is a great talent in the Oral Tradition. Just like Dan Brown. There is a profound difference between the deployment of narrative in the context of a complex, premeditated and allusive word-design, as it accumulates on the printed page… and Story-Telling. One form is not better than the other, but it leaves Stephen King at a disadvantage to judge him by the metrics we apply to, say, Milan Kundera. And vice versa: Milan Kundera wouldn’t do very well in a Story Telling contest (at midnight, by a campfire) against Stephen King. We are each free to like either or both! But we need a more nuanced taxonomy to evaluate their relative strengths and weaknesses.

    B) “Is there still racism in America? Sure, but it’s strep throat at worst. ”

    Don’t be too quick to sum up the suffering, angst, abjection, frustration and general overall life-long depression of a congenital underclass… with such a glib act of unlikely clairvoyance, Sean. Because: how could you possibly know? There aren’t many White privileges left, to be sure, but one of the greatest you’ve still got is the privilege of being naive. You think that a micro-minority of successful Black-skinned people means a proportional reduction in the force of Racism?


    Having said that. What Black (and White) Americans need to understand is that the overwhelming majority of Whites (and other non-Blacks) are being demoted to the level of co-Serf as I type this. And that if We Serfs finally learned to Unify, we could apply enough pressure to make our Lords stop treating us all like cattle… one day.

  35. Whoa, this took a turn over the weekend!

    “Cut to: Michel Houellebecq”

    “Grant Culture”

    “Racism in America: Strep Throat At Worst”

    “Racism in America: Yeah, It Kills A Few People Every Year, But”

    “Racism in America: Less Of It Than There Used To Be”

    “Regarding the CIA and the Plutocratic Agendas behind Foundations” (great dissertation title)

    “Citizen [A Poetry Book By An Independent Press With 1/3 The Sales of “Creative Haven Creative Cats Coloring Book”] Stabilizes American Racism”

    “Almost Surely Stephen King”

    “Tantalizing Little Tidbits About Graywolf [A Non-Profit Minnesota Publisher]”

  36. The white copper is not the devil. Google Columbia police talking a suicidal black man off a bridge. Further, where was BLM in Baltimore when the 3 year old was shot? Why is BLM not taking on their state governor, their DA, their judges, to stop the horrendous DEATH PENALTY? Why on earth is a so called “civililised” country continuing to murder its prisoners. Maybe screw PEN, maybe SCREW MacArthur Grants, MAYBE BLM needs to concentrate on Judicial system higher up the political ladder. Your choice is Clinton or Trump. But NO. Since they are both ridiculous, your only option is lobbying your local politicians. Stop the death penalty, and go from there. BLM can make a difference only if they stop chanting kill police. Do something that matters!!

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