The Golden Age of Nonfiction: Courtney Hodell on the Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant


It’s a golden age for nonfiction, but what writers have gained in imaginative freedom they sometimes pay for in the long and demanding road to the finish. The new Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant awards $40,000 to writers at any career stage for the completion of a deeply researched, imaginatively composed work of nonfiction for a general audience.

The grant is intended to give writers the funding to do extra research or spend more time on the writing—whatever will help them craft a book that will be read for years to come. The foundation casts its net widely, reflecting the expansive character of the genre: history, cultural or political reportage, biography, memoir, the sciences, philosophy, criticism, and personal essays are eligible, and in the last two years the grant has been awarded to such stellar talents as Sarah Broom, Phillip Gourevitch, Meghan O’Rourke, Pacifique Irankunda, Sarah Ruden, and John Jeremiah Sullivan.

I sat down with Courtney Hodell, Director of Writers’ Programs at the Whiting Foundation, to talk about why Whiting started the program, how it works, and why it matters. (Applications for the current cycle are due online by May 2.)

The Millions: Could you talk about the mission of the Creative Nonfiction Grant and how they differ from other literary grants? Why and how were the CNFGs founded?

Courtney Hodell: The Creative Nonfiction Grants are designed to help writers who are in the thick of an extremely demanding reported or researched work of nonfiction. We want to help them write the best possible book. I was an editor for many years, and saw firsthand how costly these books are to create. Sometimes it seemed like the difference between a book that was perfectly fine and a book that would be read for years to come was a matter of a little bit more money or room to breathe—whether to take another research trip, or buy some time away from paying work to get the sentences and the argument up to the highest level. Writers want to be great. But in general our culture doesn’t put a premium on supporting artists, and they often wind up struggling, or having to make compromises they shouldn’t have to make.

As I talked about these issues with writers, editors, and agents, it seemed a program like the Creative Nonfiction Grant could meet a really pressing need. We spent several months shaping it and running it past experts in the industry. One thing that makes these different from others is that they swoop in at a particular moment: when the path to the end is clear but a critical phase of work is still ahead, and the advance is long spent. In essence, these are completion grants, in the same spirit as the terrifically useful J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Awards. This struck us as the way to stretch our limited funding to do the most good.

TM: What are the chief differences between the CNFGs and the Whiting Awards, which began in 1985? Does the CNFG program maintain the same ethos as the Awards?

CH: We’re a modestly sized foundation that wants to have big impact with our grants, so we’ve built each of them to address a very specific moment of need for a writer—whether in a particular project, or in their career. That means the selection processes have to work quite differently, too, even though the goal is always to advance superb work. For example, writers apply for the CNFGs, so they can give us a detailed description of how they’ll use the funds to achieve particular goals. For the Whiting Awards, the Foundation invites nominators to anonymously put forward candidates, who don’t know they’re even under consideration. The Whiting Award money is unrestricted—the writers can use it any way they wish—which is intended to give them a sense of confidence and freedom that will bubble up through the work. Another big difference is that the Nonfiction Grant is open to writers at all career stages, whereas the Whiting Awards are specifically for emerging writers.

To try to catch these deeply-researched projects at the right moment—when the writer’s been at work long enough to clearly define their last problems left to solve—we have a stipulation that writers must have been under contract with a publisher for two years already. This means not every creative nonfiction project will be eligible, but given our small staff, this helps us, and our peer reviewers, give the applications the close critical attention that’s been a hallmark of Whiting programs. We want to make sure all the funding is going to grantees, and not to running the grantmaking process.

TM: I remember learning of Sarah M. Broom’s work from her wonderful early excerpt in The New Yorker. Other grantees like Philip Gourevitch and Meghan O’Rourke are already well known within the literary community. How does the selection process hope to reward a range of writers at various stages in their careers?

CH: You can be a fairly established writer and still have an enormous mountain to climb in the project you’ve set for yourself. If our expert judges are convinced by the work-in-progress, believe the book has something important to say to the culture, and find the plan for completion—including budget—compelling, then we are delighted to support writers who’ve already achieved a great deal in earlier work. Virtually all of our applicants and grantees are working day jobs to underwrite their books. The kind of work we want to help bring into being has always required support from multiple sources. There’s never quite enough of it, and we encourage other funders to get involved. It’s a genuinely inspiring process to see unfold.

TM: Given that the grant provides writers with an immediate influx of support to fund and continue their work, does financial need play a significant part in the decision-making process?

CH: Need is one of the many aspects we consider, and we define that as the needs of the writer to achieve their ambitions for this book. Applicants give us a detailed picture of the support they’ve received, including any other grants, and of course the publisher’s advance—most importantly, the percentage of it they’ve received, which highlights a crucial bind. Research can be very expensive to do, and when a large portion of the advance is tied to the acceptance of a finished manuscript and publication, the author isn’t getting a lot of help covering the costs of bringing the book into being.

Thinking about need more broadly, we’ve seen a real decline in support of all kinds for writers of these books over the last decade. It’s worth emphasizing that this problem has a disproportionate effect on writers of color and other traditionally marginalized voices. There are deeply ingrained organizational issues in publishing, in academia, and in journalism that can make it harder for these writers to get the early support that might result in the great gig, the breakout story, the contract for the big book. For that reason, we really want to encourage these writers to apply. We are getting better at outreach, and we always welcome help with spreading the word..

These are complicated problems to address, but that means we all need to tackle them rather than to feel defeated by them. As a starting point, diversity in those who are doing cultural curation—for us at the Foundation, that would be our judges and nominators—will result in diversity in the voices we all get to hear and learn from.

TM: Is the timeliness of subject matter a particular concern when selecting the applicants?

CH: We hope to support work that will have an impact in the culture, but the topics don’t need to be ripped from the headlines to fulfill that requirement. We supported Deborah Baker’s elegant, sharp-witted history, The Last Englishmen:  Love, War, and the End of Empire. It reveals attitudes about race and colonialism in a nuanced and relevant way, even if the book addresses events from long ago.

TM: Are there any CNFG-backed projects that will be publishing within the next year or so? And beyond that, any particular projects that you’re especially excited about?

CH: The book I mentioned by Deborah Baker is coming out in August 2018. Since you brought up Sarah Broom, I’ll say how excited I am to read her memoir of growing up in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward, in a house that was torn down by the city after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Julie Phillips is writing a searching and at times harrowing set of portraits of women artists, and how they tried to forge a new idea of motherhood that would accommodate their art practice. And the astoundingly gifted Pacifique Irankunda is delving into difficult and essential territory in his account of the Burundi civil war he lived through as a boy.

TM: Creative nonfiction is one of the most dynamic, burgeoning genres today. What are your thoughts on the current state of the genre?

CH: It’s a magnificent time to be alive as a reader of serious creative nonfiction. Genres are blurring to thrilling effect; forms are loosening up, offering writers greater latitude to find the right shape to house their ideas; readers are hungry for fresh experiments in voice and point of view.  And as critical as we all could be of the vast shallows of the Internet, it enables more writers to find more story leads, and that democratization is a wonderful thing—especially when it’s combined, as it should be, with intellectual discipline. And there are so many scholarly resources widely available that allow people to go deep when they’ve found their subject.

It has been wonderful to see the publishing industry, booksellers, and readers all embracing the fact that creative nonfiction, when it’s done well, has all the aesthetic legitimacy of great fiction—and the same market potential. They are both literature. And whatever you care to say about the political and cultural landscape of the moment, the foment it’s creating is fertile territory for the analytical mind and observant eye of a writer with the will to tackle complex topics.

Image Credit: Flickr/Andrew Hurley.