MacArthur: Too Much, Too Late?

Crain’s, a Chicago-area business (!) newspaper, recently conducted a survey of the last 25 years of the MacArthur Genius grants. (Use bugmenot.com for a login and password.) The grants provide a stipend of $500,000, paid out in equal installments over five years, and to be used in any way the recipient wishes. In the article, Mark Sheffler concludes that

[M]ost of the 31 writers chosen since 1981 as MacArthur Fellows had already hit their artistic peak.

The piece comes with a handy photo-montage of several writers, with captions that accuse their latest works–written after having received the grants–of being sub-par. Quality was judged by looking at major awards these artists received–Pulitzer, National Book Award, etc.

Is there a problem here? Maybe. But the approach is so flawed that the results given in the article are meaningless. For one thing, most of the authors are still alive, and therefore still likely to produce what could be their very best work. In addition, writers are selected at very different ages to receive the award, and so the time span Sheffler is looking at is not uniform across all writers. Lastly, are prizes really the best indicator of whether a book is good? Take the recent brouhaha over the NBA and all the complaints about how Philip Roth was robbed. Prizes are nice, but they’re inherently subjective, just like these awards.

Still, this doesn’t mean that the article doesn’t bring up a good point. I’ve always been mystified by the selection process for the MacArthurs and the lack of oversight after the selection, so it was really amusing to read this quote, from the director of the MacArthur Fellows program.

Mr. Socolow disagrees: “I think the program works fantastically. Can I measure it in quantifiable terms? No.”

Must be nice to work for somebody who doesn’t do performance reviews.

Thanks to Amy H. for the link.

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