2017’s Literary Geniuses

October 11, 2017 | 31 2 min read

The winners of this year’s MacArthur Fellowship “Genius grant” have been announced. The grant awards $625,000 with “no strings attached” to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Along with scientists, artists, community leaders, and social justice organizers, there are new geniuses from the literary world. Here are this year’s literary fellows:

covercoverViet Thanh Nguyenthe cultural critic, scholar, and fiction writer—won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his debut novel, The SympathizerIn Claire Mussad‘s 2015 Year in Reading, she described Nguyen’s first novel as “rich, surprising, and often darkly funny.” Nguyen often writes about the Vietnam War—attempting to portray a more balanced, complete portrait of it and its aftermath—and the way war reverberates in our lives and memory. You can read Nguyen’s Year in Reading which included works by Helen MacdonaldVu Tran, and 2016 MacArthus Genuis Claudia Rankine (he felt “pinned down by the power of [her] language, politics, and vision”). His 2016 nonfiction book, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, was a National Book Award Finalist. His newest book, a collection of short stories called The Refugees, was included in our Great 2017 Book Preview.

covercoverJesmyn Ward, novelist, writes extensively about the lives of African Americans in the rural south. Ward’s newest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, is a 2017 National Book Award Finalist for Fiction (her previous novel Salvage the Bones (2011) won the same award).  The novel, which mixes the real and magical in rural Mississippi, follows Jojo—a 13-year-old of mixed race—and his drug addicted mother as they drive to pick his father up from prison. Our review described Ward’s newest novel as an exploration of the “legacy of trauma” in a deeply divided society “where the oppressor and the oppressed share a legacy.” In an interview with The Millions, Ward said that she is constantly thinking about the intersection of race, violence, the South, and the ways history “bears on the present.” She said, “I’m always thinking about how black people survive. How people are marginalized in the South and the way they still survive that oppression.”

The single playwright among the fellows is Annie Baker, coverwho won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “The Flick,” which follows three employees at a run-down movie theater in Massachusetts. The foundation describes her work as “exploring the complexities of human behavior and the ways in which language is often inadequate to build true understanding between people.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones works as a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine where she investigates racial injustice. In 2015, she helped found the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, which seeks to increase investigative opportunities for reporters and editors of color. She writes extensively about segregation and integration, particularly in education, for ProPublicaNPR, and The New York Times Magazine. Her piece, “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,” is part-memoir, part-reported piece that reveals “school segregation is not an isolated phenomenon but rather a defining factor of most cities across the country.”

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  1. I guess it’s pretty damn subjective then, because Baker is the only one that jumped out as anything resembling a singular, sustaining talent here. Ward and Nguyen are very young as well, but haven’t created nearly as much (Nguyen is essentially a one-novel wonder). I hadn’t read much of Jones but that Times Magazine piece was pretty treacly and predictable, just more of the same, first-person woe-is-me pseudo-memoirism. I will give Nguyen credit for his post-Trump editorial in the LA Times, that was a wise-beyond-his-years take, but overall I just don’t think he’s done enough yet.
    Also, Baker is the only engaging stylist in the group (Ward’s prose is downright yawn-inducing). I know we all want to praise minority artists and give them a boost and even things up for all the years where straight white males rules the roost (I for one could not care less about another book by Dave Eggers or Jonathan Safron-Foer), but it’s not too much to ask members of minority groups (I’m a gay Jew, yes Jew, not “Jewish person,” we call ourselves Jews) to have some grasp of structure and of formal innovation. Mat Johnson and Yiyun Li, for example, are capable of really pushing the boundaries of fiction while also being funny (a lot of self-seriousness and lack of irony in both Nguyen and Ward — Ward in particular, who isn’t quite as humorless as Hanya Yanagihara, but is nonetheless a “suffering equals literary” type — blech). Have a little fun and playfulness with your fiction, Nathan Englander, AM Homes, Gary Shteyngart, these are semi-canonical new voices who achieve this.
    In Nguyen and Ward I just see too much self-righteousness and social concern. Nabokov long ago showed us that taking psychology and politics too seriously is a recusing of art, an embracing of a “cause,” and opposed to the real sustaining value of art — aesthetic greatness.
    Baker, on the other hand, gives me a real sense of understanding the history of her artform, of the theatre, of her place in the throughline and how to extend it in new way(while also slyly working in a lot of commentary about gender, but doing so subtly, with nuance, without wearing a pink hat or an “I Voted” sticker — blech again, so American). Alright, I’m not usually a venter or a harsh critic. I like to recommend plenty of new writers and artists and I hope I’m not coming across as too mean-spirited. Admittedly I don’t get the hype about Jesmyn at all, and maybe one day I will call Nguyen a really talented and consistent writer, but “genius” should be an elite and hard-to-achieve label (and they get a lot of money). Just my four cents (apologies too for the length of this missive), and while my rhetoric may be spicy, I’m always up for hearing others’ POV. Particularly on Ward — what exactly is “good” about her writing? I really want to know. It always seems to me like it’s trying to win points for misery — And I heard enough of that from my relatives growing up and droning on about the Holocaust and making me watch documentary after documentary so that when I found a voice that skewered that — Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth — it was truly enlightening and opened up the fictional voice rather than closing it off.
    I apologize for being unfamiliar with the posting decorum here, I’m new to posting at themillions but love the site.

  2. @NormaD

    I always enjoy reading substantive comments.

    Re:“genius” should be an elite and hard-to-achieve label”

    I don’t think the Literary Authorities handing out hyperbolic praise on a relentless and seemingly random (though often commercial or political) basis understand (or care about?) the damage they’re doing to Literary culture.

    To write a book while having the proper Identity Stats (gender/ race/ age/ national origin or religion) is to enter the Lottery; and since anyone can be MFA’d into writing a book, what counts, apparently, is having the property Identity Stats. The book itself is a secondary or tertiary concern but, remember: some topics (eg Slavery) are almost guaranteed winners. I’m trying to imagine N. Baker’s The Mezzanine, or Room Temperature, being published… or even read by any agent… today.

    I’ve bought too many books, in the past ten years, that felt like mere formalities as I read them; that were as interesting to read as grant applications. If I didn’t already have decades of amazing reading experiences behind me (from Didion to Brodkey, Joyce to Calvino, Atwood to Roth and Miller and Vonnegut and Munro… too many to mention) I can imagine losing interest after such a long string of recent duds. The best of the books I read, since 2010, like stuff by Cusk or Everett or Whitehead, was *not bad*… it didn’t put me to sleep or piss me off with ineptitude. But neither did *any* of it make me grip a book and go “whoa!” as I did, say, while reading the group-dinner set piece in MAO ll or the rehab scenes in Sabbath’s Theater. The more liberally the word “genius” is tossed around, it seems, the fewer actual geniuses come along to claim it.

    I can understand how so many people read so few books because, given the mere formalities flooding the market, why should they bother? Time is precious and a Worthy Subject addressed by a Worthy Minority… that’s just not enough to justify a week’s (or a day’s) investment. Buying a book should not be an act of charity … or an exercise in do-gooding.. or a ho-hum chore. But writers, agents, publishers, critical organs and prize committees are all now colluding to make that the standard reality.

    Listen: you don’t even have to *read* these books, just buy them and praise them. It’s for a “good cause”, right?

    Or is it?

    “I know we all want to praise minority artists and give them a boost and even things up for all the years where straight white males ruled the roost …”

    When I was an adolescent in early ’70s Vegas, my father had a poster on one of the closet doors that read, “Give me a fish and I eat for a day, teach me to fish and I eat for a lifetime.”

    Teach these kids to fish.

  3. S & N

    We’re heading for (living in?) a literary culture in which everyone’s a genius and every book is a masterpiece. Critical reviews are already verboten at a lot of outlets. Literary fiction has become a cottage industry, where the focus is not on quality and art but on on self-sustenance, like any good authoritarian regime. You pay your dues via the MFA system, which hooks you up with an agent, so you publish a book (any book, it doesn’t matter), get a standard set of blurbs and reviews that serve the sole purpose of marketing the book, you say nice enough and bland enough things about everyone in the industry to land an MFA teaching job, and the vicious circle is complete. You are making a living as a Writer. As long as you are unfailingly polite you will be allowed to publish a novel about a writer or creative writing professor every few years. Each one will be forgotten the moment it hits the bookshelf. but no matter: the important thing isn’t the book, but the career behind it.

    The tell-tale symptom of this disease is the anti-style in which 95% of today’s books are written. For a long time I could not for the life of me understand why anyone would want to dedicate a few years of your life telling a story not in your own voice but in that of a metropolitan newspaper style guide. But now I get it: it’s not about the book. The book is a means to an end. The book is part of a Development Plan. The book is a line on a CV.

  4. Norma! Welcome. Your comment was most interesting and really soul searching and modest. Steve and Toad are going to be happy to have you here. I will sit in the corner and listen. I have finally jumped off the prize and pre-pub buzz wagon, which isn’t to say that every book lauded disappointed. I agree with Toad about the cottage industry of “literary” books, bloody pity, it is like the passion for a beautiful or witty sentence is not there, or more likely the author is simply not intellectual enough to master a phrase of the kind that makes us go “whoa, I need to read this sentence again, it gives me shivers”. Steve nice to hear mention of Nicholson Baker, I loved the Paul Chowder novels. And your last sentence “Teach these kids to fish”, made go “whoa”. *shivers*

  5. Toad!

    “For a long time I could not for the life of me understand why anyone would want to dedicate a few years of your life telling a story not in your own voice but in that of a metropolitan newspaper style guide.”

    Now THAT was hilarious… I emitted an actual bark of laughter.


    I love Paul Chowder, too, though I disagree with him on the matter of end rhyme (I think internal rhyme is where all the action is; I can’t accept the notion of all those terribly familiar fraternal twins… like good old Moon and June… lining up neatly at the inevitable ends of all those coupled lines and being somehow, miraculously, the ideal word-choice in sense as well as sound). I’d hang out with Chowder, give him advice about Roz and loan him money.

  6. Steven,

    I was looking forward to your commentary on the just-previous article “Write What You Know? Identity Politics and Fiction.” I had to offer my own clumsy, hip-shot defense of Roth in lieu of the discussion I thought that post would engender. Anyway, I thought it was a better mulch for conversation than a certain number of Millions articles.

  7. Tom!

    I am so swamped these days that I have to pick very carefully the topics/articles for which I can channel epic screeds! Laugh. I keep about a dozen sites of interest minimized on my browser and peek through them, at intervals, during the day, while working at my two computers (one of which is an internet virgin, to keep it fast and neurosis-free). That article did indeed look interesting but, for me, because of my age, probably (my reading habits formed before anyone could tell me that the characters I was reading about were the wrong demographic), the “issue” is so preposterous: every work of fiction that wasn’t written about the reader (ie, all fiction) is a work about The Other, no?

    Re: Roth: yeah, that “dully” in the second ref to Roth, in the essay you mention, is just plain wrong, eh?

    PS Come over to my site, one day, and we can “talk” without fear of giving offense or going off piste. Have you read my long-form paean to Roth’s technique(s)? Or the sneaky wink, at DH Lawrence’s touching naivete, in my latest short story…?

  8. I agree with a lot of the comments above and agree that literary fiction is nowadays far too much of a cottage industry.
    That said, the New York insiders probably used to have even MORE sway back in the twentieth century, and that was a lot about gladhanding and working a room and “who you know” too.
    The difference now is, largely, those damn identity politics, as stated in a number of the comments. I want a good stylist, a person who knows what they’re doing, not the pity-story of the week about the horrors of the history of culture/country/continent X. The “old white males” could write like freakin’ angels. Kerouac, Updike, Roth, Cheever, they were simply way, way better at what they did than a lot of the young writers today.
    I’m as liberal you get on most social issues, but recently, a lot of people I would otherwise consider allies talk about meritocracy as if its some sort of status quo conspiracy. Meritocracy is absolutely essential to the culture. Fran Lebowitz has a quote, something like — You want democracy in society but you don’t want democracy in art. Art should be an aristocracy of talent. We have to get back to judging things by the talent of the people who made them, not voting for 12 Years a Slave as deserving an award for Best Picture (and I don’t just mean the Oscars, I mean all the awards it won, often from judges who admitted to not even seeing it) just because you think it’s “socially important”. We also need to punish judges who engage in corruption. Political correctness is killing the culture. Sherman Alexie admits he picked a poem for inclusion in Best American Poetry because he thought it was about a minority and people get mad not Alexie, for being corrupt, but mad at the white writer for lying about his race to prove just how unmeritocratic and corrupt a lot of these “bests” and “awards” are.
    Lastly, we need to dissociate. The Harvey Weinstein stuff reminded me a lot of this. Like, yeah, he’s a pig, he’s a bad person, but he was a great producer, he was great at his job. Bill Clinton was a pig too but we elected him to be a good president (not a nice guy). By giving awards and money to “nice guys” and people who are good at networking, we deprive ourselves. I probably wouldn’t get along with Philip Roth at all at a dinner party, or love Norman Mailer as a neighbor, but they were good at the job of writing, of constructing interesting sentences, paragraphs and novels.

  9. Unadorned!

    I was with you for much of your comment but I think we have to take a closer look at this bit, because it doesn’t actually follow from the argument preceding it:

    “Lastly, we need to dissociate. The Harvey Weinstein stuff reminded me a lot of this. Like, yeah, he’s a pig, he’s a bad person, but he was a great producer, he was great at his job. Bill Clinton was a pig too but we elected him to be a good president (not a nice guy).”

    We can (and often must) turn a blind eye to grumpy painters and rude writers and singers who never tip, but the last things we need are psychopaths in positions of power: Clinton was *not* a “good president”, precisely because he was a (shifty, lying, con-man) pig; this is the guy who knowingly, with a lizard’s grin, sold the Middle Class some Kool-Aid laced with piss and cyanide… aka NAFTA… and shares credit for genocidal bloodshed in what was Yugoslavia. Among other things. No space here to investigate the paradoxes of what being a “good president” would mean, of course, but ruining livelihoods, destroying a class and wiping out a country or two shouldn’t be seen as positives in any context.

    And Weinstein should have been fired, at the very least (and probably thrown in prison) years ago. The old Faulkner-cum-Nietzsche alibi that “Ode to a Grecian urn is worth any number of old ladies” is a load of damp pants. Art is, first of all, for, about and by Humans… to sacrifice Humans for Art is to get the relationship wrong. No woman should be sexually coerced or raped and no woman should have to suffer either, and then keep silent about it, in the name of even the greatest film… and certainly not for middlebrow entertainments like “Shakespeare in Love” or “My Week with Marilyn”.

    Having said that: being ruthlessly meritocratic about standards in Art is not to sacrifice Humans, it is to sacrifice Human Ego: never yet fatal. In fact, it’s often good and necessary, the culling of inflated self-regard. Talent is not a Human Right. The unTalented should be very gently ushered offstage to give the Talented some light, some undivided attention, some breathing room. It will work wonders on the audience, too.

    PS And, btw, Steve McQueen is a brilliant director and a serious artist. Please don’t lump him in with the recipients of various Affirmative Action Awards merely because he’s Black.

  10. “Kerouac, Updike, Roth, Cheever”… That’s your proof of a past meritocracy? Great writers, sure, but how many godawful books of theirs were published because they were white men? Writers like Ralph Ellison never had the luxury of dumping their crap on the reading public because they were held to a completely different standard… I wonder why. And no one adds Richard Wright, Katherine Anne Porter or Willa Cather to a list that includes Faulkner and Fitzgerald.

    In any case, plenty of white men are still being published and rewarded (usually with money, the best reward). The dearth of great books has nothing to do with minorities and everything to do with a general lack of interest in good literature. A minority writer is just one more selling point for what is inevitably a book as mediocre as any other.

  11. “Kerouac, Updike, Roth, Cheever, they were simply way, way better at what they did than a lot of the young writers today.”

    Meh. I have a special affinity for Kerouac, he’s one of those writers who spurred my interest in writing, but even I recognize a lot of his work is garbage “typing”. Roth has a few brilliant books but the deeper I dug into his ouevre the more bored I got. Updike and Cheever could be scrubbed from the canon and I wouldn’t miss ’em.

    “The difference now is, largely, those damn identity politics”

    When people decry “identity politics” what they are really decrying is “non-white identity politics”. These same people LOVE white identity politics. You literally could not find a more “identity politics”-obsessed writer than Philip Roth, whose output you could pithily sum up as “exploration of Jewishness”. Those old WASPs Updike and Cheever were treading in familiar waters.

    All politics are identity politics; all writing is political; hence all writing is identity politics.

  12. “hence all writing is identity politics.”

    Nah. It’s not on the page. It’s in the mind of (some) readers and (some) writers but the page is innocent of that dull, sub-literary gunk; the better the writing, the more innocent… the more clean… the page. Talent is a powerful disinfectant.

    “Identity Politics” presumes that there is some essential, some core, difference between groups of people; the more Philistine the culture becomes, the more “important” the “Identity Politics”. Literature should have taught us all something very different by now. Art and Music could have, as well. But how can Lit teach us this when we spend so much time on (segregated) Facebook and (essentialist) Super Hero flicks?

    Personally, I don’t trust (or associate with) people who make a big thing out of being Black/ White/ Female/ Gay/ Young/ Straight/ Old/ Male… whatever. What a trivial set of coordinates to live with.

  13. Steve – I don’t think we’re far off here…politics, identity or otherwise, need not make it onto the page to play a role in a book. The decisions writers make – what characters they feature, how they act, etc – are all inherently political. And what is the human condition (what the best literature is “about”) but people figuring out who they are, how they fit into the world around them, and so on?

    My point is that criticizing a book for its “identity politics” is hollow and often disingenuous. It’s a meaningless term used almost exclusively in bad faith. So let’s quit using it, eh?

    Way back when we used to call “people who make a big thing out of being [themselves]” solipsists (or, worse, narcissists).

  14. Dig the two-man jerk off going on above me. You guys remind me of the time I watched a video on Youtube of Styx’s Tommy Shaw and Journey’s Neil Schon having a guitar duel. Technically competent, but utterly soulless.

  15. Anon, welcome to the jerk sesh! You’re right, I’ve been phoning it in for weeks. I hereby pledge to up my internet commenting game. More soul, less competence.
    Thanks for the constructive criticism!

  16. Toad!

    “My point is that criticizing a book for its “identity politics” is hollow and often disingenuous.”

    Yep. It’s also the sort of thing people discuss when the books under discussion aren’t genuinely interesting. Like going on about cinematography or set design at a Whit Stillman retrospective.

  17. My opinion was auto-invalidated the moment I admitted to reading your comments, you pseudo-intellectual twat.

  18. Anon! You old curmudgeon! Here! Over at the bar! Let’s grab a beer and a smoke and go look at the stars. We are all just specks, dust. Nothing matters. It’s all good.

  19. Alright, let’s not devolve into name-calling and juvenile behavior. I brought up the identity politics thing and I meant it as a simple antidote to the tokenism that sometimes pops up in discussions of the arts. Absolutism is not the realm of educated and intelligent people. “Everything is political” and “nothing in the arts should be political” are equally silly positions. This is not about anyone’s subjective opinions about individual writers and whether or not you personally could do without them, it’s about their mastery of technique. I take issue with anything that’s reductive and not edifying. That’s all I was trying to say.

  20. Un

    Saying “The difference now is, largely, those damn identity politics” is a weird way to combat reductive criticism, but whatevs. If by “technique” you mean “style” then I’m with you – to ape a certain commenter, “more style, less competence, please.”

    More broadly I think literary fiction as a culture would be well-served to recognize that there are actually very few geniuses at work today, few books are truly great and fewer still are masterpieces, and we should collectively do a much better job seeking them out and acknowledging them.

  21. T!

    “few books are truly great and fewer still are masterpieces, and we should collectively do a much better job seeking them out and acknowledging them.”

    Agreed. However: how many really care about Literature, enough, to bother? People care about money, they care about fame, they’re interested in people who seem to have acquired both through the practise of book-writing… and whatever portion of the readership that doesn’t cover is probably covered by people interested in very specific topics such as divorce or childhood abuse or social issues (which ties us back, in part, to the Identity Politics thing). Getting people interested in the workings of Lit-qua-Lit (ooops, just rang an alarm bell! Pretentious!) seems as likely as getting the average Game of Thrones fan interested in the electronics of their Widescreen. Literary Genius is pretty much on its own, I fear…

    Also, remember, in the koan-like words of the only Real Intellectual in this thread:

    “If Annie Baker is a genius then no one is”

    (No, I can’t figure that sentence out, either; which is why I’m a pseud…)

  22. You arent a pseud and you know it Steven. You are all heart. I think he meant if she is Not than no one is. But don’t waste time and carry on.

  23. H!

    It’s always good to mix comedy with theory! But if I want to be a better pseud I’ll have to start dropping more Greek words (written in actual Greek lettering) into my commentary…

  24. You are a good man Steven. Your tempa,tempa i hear with a funny Jewish accent. Anon will be OK. As always. Anyway glad that nothing stops your convo even if I have no idea at all what you are talking about, it is still interesting to read.

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