I read the art news today. Two visual artists won the mega establishment award of entrenched bureaucracy. I sent the Foundation a chastising memo back in 2011, when a university professor ( a teacher!) won the literature award while he was doing all that teaching. One of the visual artists “winning” this year is a teacher, but the other is a painter who paints. Maybe my memo had an impact. Who knows? No one ever got back to me about it.
Time to Kick the Mes in the Knees
Recently on National Propaganda Radio I heard that one of the 23 MacArthur Foundation Genius Grants (a $500,000.00 prize) went to Junot Díaz a fiction writer/college professor at MIT. The bio on their website states that he uses “vernacular dialogue and spare, unsentimental prose to draw readers into the various and distinct worlds that immigrants must straddle.” He got a phone call out of the blue telling him of his amazing good fortune. According to MacArthur this stupendously generous grant is unique in that there will be “no strings attached” to Junot’s moolah gift, which will be distributed in periodic payments over the next five years.
Kudos to Junot and the Mac people for seeking out easy genius and rewarding it with gobs of money. Pencils are cheap but time is priceless. So I wonder how, in this overflowing economy of staggering wealth poorly distributed… I wonder how our grant hero will make this time award bear genius fruit.
I call it a time reward because Junot is already making about a hundred grand a year teaching creative writing full-time at MIT. Obviously in order to make the best use of the money which is time, Junot would have to take a five year long hiatus from grading papers and lecturing about creativity to the next generation of geniuses of the establishment. Otherwise he will have to expend all of his future potential devising a time machine or new drug to severely limit sleep without side-effect. This might bring future grant money in the field of physics or biology, but would detract from the initial intent of the award. Junot cannot possibly keep his day job if he is to write more outstanding “unsentimental prose.” But I bet he will. After all, he didn’t ask for the money. It just came to him. Like it does to all hard-working creative types, who have professorships, and car payments, and wild nights of striped bass entrees in Harvard Square.
This from Henry Miller, a writer of another kind of genius:
“We write, knowing we are licked before we start. Every day we beg for fresh torment. The more we itch and scratch the better we feel. And when our readers also begin to itch and scratch we feel sublime. Let no one die of inanition! The airs must ever swarm with arrows of thought delivered by les hommes de lettres. Letters, mind you. How well put! Letters strung together with invisible wires charged with imponderable magnetic currents. All this travail forced upon a brain that was intended to work like a charm, to work without working. Is it a person coming towards you or a mind? A mind divided into books, pages, sentences replete with commas, periods, semi-colons, dashes and asterisks. One author receives a prize or seat in the Academy for his efforts, another a worm-eaten bone. The names of some are lent to streets and boulevards, of others to gallows and alms houses. And when all these “creations” have been finally read and digested men will still be buggering one another. No author, not even the greatest, has been able to get around that hard, cold fact.”
This year Junot got his seat in the Academy. I’m pulling worms out of my bone.
It’s no wonder I heard about Junot Diaz on NPR. The MacArthur Foundation is a regular contributor to my government radio station. The circle is complete. The Mac people scratch the NPR backs and the favors are always repaid. First advertise, and then via radio vignette proselytize the foundation’s normalcy to millions of Americans. Set the standard for what is acceptable genius. In this case, Junot the well-paid writer of immigrants. Good thing he wasn’t just some tomato picker in Florida writing out snippets of pure genius among a chorus of snoring co-workers in government barracks. Junot picked all day for a pittance to send back to Mama Flora in La Vega. He always wanted to be a writer. Unlike all the other boys he loathed soccer and baseball. His grade school teacher thought his big words should never be used by a poor Dominican, yet she tolerated Junot for his humility. By the time he was thirty-five Junot had written over a million words, and thought his depictions of immigrant woe and wonder quite good. He felt the social sting of his social class comrades daily. They didn’t have time to care, yet tolerated Junot for his typical humility. And he picked tomatoes as quick as the best. His brother Rodrigo, who loved Junot like a saint, got wind of the MacArthur Foundation on NPR (his English learning station), and promptly sent a post out to Chicago espousing the writing talent of his older brother. Rodrigo made a point to note the adversity Junot faced every day, and how he burned the midnight oil perfecting his craft within an environment that would crush the hopes and dreams of lessor spirits. He sent in one of Junot’s short stories and promptly forgot about his good deed amidst a bad dream world of endless tomatoes.
The Mac people received Rodrigo’s nomination of his brother and promptly threw it in the trash.
What multi-million dollar organization would risk its resources and reputation on an actual genius migrant worker? The MacArthur Foundation won’t waste a nickel searching for aspiring artists who might need more than anything a modest economic and confidence boost. It’s got its bases covered. Keep the unlucky hoard picking the nation’s fruits and vegetables. Dole out millions to upper middle class safety people, the well-groomed and super careful of our culture. Just review for yourself the 23 recipients this year (2012). Besides some mandolin virtuoso, all have established, non-broom-handling jobs or professorships in universities. Not one is hungry nor late with the rent. Not one is actually taking any risk with his or her genius. All bases are covered. The MacArthur Foundation people pick winners who are most like themselves. The comfortable car payment types. The internet connection ones. The college fund for their children folks. The antithesis of needy genius.
I admit there is a bunch of sour grapes in my review of this year’s sue-pare geniuses. But I persist to shed light on the power money has when it mixes with media. Impressed upon my mind and a hundred thousand other local listeners of our public radio station is the story of Junot and his receiving a gift of a half million dollars. Attached to that marvelous money prize is the word “genius”. Both the NPR and Mac People refrain from actually defining the word, nor provide a disclaimer about their bastardization of it. Junot and the rest of this year’s recipients are probably very creative and intelligent people. So yes, by definition Junot is a genius. He wrote some books. That is very creative. The problem with rewarding Junot such an enormous sum of money under the auspice of “genius” is that we (with the push of the propagandists) have lowered the bar for “genius” to mean any full-time university employee who part-times in creativity.
The whole grant procedure mocks the Emerson or Edison among us who never applied for the private safety net; who kept at their genius no matter what Lexus put out that year. And these men and women of old produced movements and machines that will last for centuries. An Elisabeth Cady Stanton, Henry Thoreau, or any Jane Doe of our day, one among the unsung thousands who struggle creatively, never make it to the committee round table. The Mac Foundation claims that it “supports creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.” And no offense Junot, but you’re the best of the best? You are the creative spokesperson for disillusioned immigrants? Jesus, there has got to be a single mom in Laredo with as much creative drive as you. A writer-to-be who practically crawls into the trailer at night, feeds her babies, tucks them in for poverty dreams, and then sits down to write out her daily agonies creatively. She is someone who would actually take that huge half a million dollar chip on her shoulder and produce at top speed tenfold of what time forbids you to do as status-shopper in the corporate (university) mall.
Allow me to break down an imaginary day typical for a Junot, or any insta-rich hobbyist fiction writer whose day-job is university professor.
MIT is located in a busy metropolitan center. So any commute must be hell. An hour at least from house to office. If you’re a married man with kids, then the family will need that part of you allotted to them. That takes morning and evening time away from fiction writing. On your desk await a pile of papers to read and make written suggestions. This is part of your contract. Unavoidable. The rich brats are paying for your tutelage, so you can’t just delegate advice from the grad assistant. Office hours are today and Thursday, and there’s a night class on Wednesday. The family is hosting the grandparents next weekend, and it’s your turn to cook dinner tonight. Phew. After dinner, if the kids are entertained and the wife is caught up with her own homework, then you’ll steal away an hour or two to work on the novel. It’s got to be a good one. Your reputation is counting on it. Good thing the creative juices are overflowing. The wife in pajamas waits expectantly for you. Your becoming a Mac-fellow has improved her outlook significantly. You dot the t’s and cross your i’s, and fall hard asleep, content with comfort.
And culture! Poor Junot must also squeeze in television, groceries, sump pump, parties, school plays, cub scouts, swimming pool, tennis, magazines, doctor, cat litter, lawn care, wine cellar. A hundred grand per year for the next five years only exacerbates the problems of modern living. He was perfectly happy with the Volkswagen Passat. Now to think about leasing an upgrade. And the public school in Braintree was fine until junior said the “F” word at karate. Now with the half a million, private Thayer Academy deserves a walk-through.
Surely avarice comes into play. Not a fierce greed, but the gentler kind, where each rung on the incredibly safe corporate ladder improves materially with height. All professions offer the golden rung to its most ambitious climbers. Always a very scheduled and boring climb for the determined. By resume Junot has paid his corporate dues, faithfully and on time. He had reached the silver rung, and now this giant boost from the Foundation has cast him a golden throne on the summit of One-Upmanship Mountain.
None of this reward goes to Junot, the qualified teacher of writing. Supposedly the actual day job that helped push him (and many others) to these new, fantastic heights of national recognition is of no concern to the Foundation. It doesn’t matter that Junot might be an incredible bore in the eyes of his students. Or that many of them will finish his class more institutional than creative in their writing styles. Or worse—write more like Junot. Fiction-writing neophytes should know who their audience is, and if Junot is the only audience, and Junot is human, he will probably lead his students toward his personal likes and dislikes.
So much for creative writing.
I’d like to know what teaching credentials he has. Junot is a genius, highly intelligent and creative, but does he inspire his students? Is his main focus on their personal development as writers and artists? Is it not an educational conflict of interest to set up a successful commercial writer to teach his future competitors? The grant from the MacArthur Foundation by definition seeks to support Junot in personal creative endeavor, which was born precisely not via the art of teaching, but rather by his one-man writing show. The spark that the Foundation sees in Junot the individual, not dedicated teacher, is what got him the half a million. So will he do the right thing and quit his job tomorrow? Will MIT rethink its policy of placing successful business people into teaching positions, and seek those who are born and practiced teachers? Probably no, and no. Junot is an advertisement for MIT. Both MacArthur and the University get their credential boosts from the existence of an “unsentimental writer of immigrants.” He might teach like a slow-talking rock, but he’s a gem to the charlatans who charge 50 grand a year for impressionable youth to court slow-talking rocks. And the MacArthur people, while stepping on no toes, place another chiseled rock, a perfect fit to its glorious foundation.
Poor Junot. It’s not his fault. Our culture is to blame. We are rewarding hyper-atomized professions undeserved wealth and status. In a strong economy health and wellness are imperative, and by their successful implementation will bear modest sustaining fruit. A creative writer is a boon to the community when his or her efforts improve the outlook of children, or reinforce the golden rule to remind parents not to stray. Junot uses his creative gift toward self-promotion. He is a prostitute of his own mind and its overloaded output. The book has a price tag. It takes from the community. Sure it maintains professions in the publishing and distribution houses of New York and Singapore, and those jobs generate wealth in other industrialized economies, but the whole effort rewarding Junot perpetuates the bad idea that the world needs more “mes” on an international level. And that means a lot of over-the-top individual solicitation among thousands in similar fields of human endeavor. The long life of the individual is shrouded in too much fruitless effort. Struggle, even after achieving the top evolutionary success of health and wellness, becomes the norm. Everyone still pretending success locks onto the ladder and starts climbing. It’s not until after the third prostate exam or nowadays, mammogram, that dreams of a spiritual kind push their way into the brain. By then the grandchildren arrive and although paths to enlightenment are ready for your commitment, one life in just one lifetime cannot reform the chaotic social order all by its lonesome. Vicariously we lock back onto the ladder, and praise the Junots of the world, hoping someday our posterity can reach such equally vaulted heights.
What specialties improve a human race? Very hard to say. Good medicine and smart agriculture, via several generations of careful research, has brought long life to many. Science has its dark side in nuclear weapons and British Petroleum, yet the balance is kept steady with rapid reduction of infant mortality. More scientists live to count the extinctions. The modern wheel of life has fallen off a monster mountaintop removal truck and wherever the earth shows scars of suffering, humanity has made tremendous leaps and bounds. Both Junot and I are guilty of ocean fish depletion, iceless polar bears, and childhood diabetes. But unlike Junot, I am not a garbage hole. I am an unfunded teeny-tiny kink in the human machine. My creative effort is spent “kicking the mes in the knees.” For all of his recognized creative potential, Junot will write more tales about Emperor Man for the “mes” to admire. They’ll dole out the 500 grand, not for Junot to unleash his ability to shame us and save the world, but to keep him comfortably quiet amassing status as an award-winning writer of all that keeps man a great distance from man.