Paper or Plastic?

John Sutherland

  • Gain by Richard Powers
    Heinemann, 355 pp, £15.99, March 2000, ISBN 0 434 00862 1

Every year since 1981 the MacArthur Foundation has made awards to between 20 and 40 Americans (depending on how the stock-market performs) across all the fields of human endeavour – less sport and business, which have their own prizes. The Foundation recognises the familiar élite activities from architecture through poetry and theoretical physics to zoology. But it is also interested in less confined genius. This year’s list includes a teacher ‘who uses unlikely building materials, such as old tyres, scrap wood and bottles, to construct beautiful and ingenious homes in remote regions of Alabama’ and ‘a woman who, working from her wheelchair, is championing the rights and changing the lives of women with disabilities in the poorest regions of the world’.

Over its two decades MacArthur has handed out some $3 billion (at current values) to 588 American geniuses. Many times more than the total distributed by the Arts Council, British Academy and Leverhulme Foundation combined. The annual list is as eagerly awaited as the Nobel Prizes, the National Book Awards or (in the academic community, at least) the Oscars. Decisions are made by an anonymous jury of 13 (the supernumerary is mysterious) whose deliberations are shrouded in conspiratorial secrecy. Behind the hooded 13 are a few hundred equally anonymous ‘nominators’ – genius’s snitches. You cannot apply for a MacArthur. It happens to you – if you are exceedingly lucky. There is no interview process. No project is required. Security is airtight and notification goes out by telephone a few hours ahead of the press release. This phone call is the only indication to the winners that the big finger in the sky has been pointing at them.

The criteria for the ‘genius award’, as it is commonly called (the Foundation dislikes the term), are significantly different from those that apply to other high-profile prizes. It is, precisely, an award not a reward. That is, MacArthur stakes a wager on potential: it is not what you have done, but what you may do, which is judged, or prejudged. ‘The kid will go far,’ is the message they send. Such prophecy is notoriously inaccurate. The MacArthur operation has not been going long enough for one to see how many out-and-out winners they have in fact chosen – but as yet their hunches don’t seem a whole lot better than those of other pin-pickers.

What does distinguish MacArthur is the size of the bet they are prepared to lay. It dwarfs the Nobel’s paltry hundred grand (forget the Booker’s 20K). The winner of a MacArthur receives five years’ stipend amounting to half a million dollars. No strings are attached to this windfall. Nor is any report or accounting required after it has been spent. Laureates can take their fun-money to Las Vegas, if they so wish, and blow it on a single turn of the roulette wheel. As the Foundation piously puts it, ‘an important underpinning of the programme is confidence that the fellows are in the best position to decide how to make most effective use of the fellowship resources.’ The aim is to put genius on easy street. Freed from the garret and the jail (if not the patron), it will flower. But no matter if it doesn’t. You are being paid not for what you have done or will do, but for what you are. Pure Genius. The thinking behind the MacArthur programme is eugenic: there is a caste of Americans, in whatever field, who are genetically superior to other Americans – and to most of the human race. Inevitably, there have been proposals to secrete the sperm and ova of winners as a national resource – a kind of genomic Fort Knox.

Genius is traditionally associated with two things: youth and nation. This year’s 25 winners range from two precociously brilliant Caltech scientists, aged 28 and 30, to a 55-year-old architect, with the majority of fellows in their energetic forties. In the early years, MacArthur was also associated with the Y chromosome and Wasp heritage. The first list of 21 winners, in 1981, contained 19 males, none of them carrying obvious Hispanic or Asian-American surnames. The July 2000 list has 12 women among 25 winners, and a generous speckling of names like Muñoz and Horng-Tzer Yau. Female and minority genius has made remarkable strides in the last twenty years. Or perhaps the criteria have shifted.

Where literature, particularly fiction, is concerned, the Foundation has encountered predictable problems. Novel writers traditionally come from nowhere, exploding on the scene with a first work. Often they implode just as fast with the second. In its fiction category the Foundation has tended to play safe (there are no novelists selected this year). Its relatively few awards have been made to older and tried hands: proven winners. As a cohort, novelists are MacArthur’s senior citizens. William Gaddis (1982) was awarded a fellowship at the age of 60, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1984) at 57, Susan Sontag (1990) at 59, Ernest J. Gaines (1993) at 60. Thomas Pynchon was a relatively young 51 when he won, but by 1988 already the author of his major works.

The Foundation nonetheless took a big punt on the genius of Richard Powers, who was awarded his MacArthur in 1989, aged only 32. I haven’t checked, but he is probably the youngest novelist ever to win a fellowship. Generally unknown in 1989, and temperamentally reticent, he has lately divulged something of his personal background in interviews and in the autobiographical novel Galatea 2.2 (written by the 35-year-old Richard Powers, it has a 35-year-old novelist narrator-hero called ‘Richard Powers’. Everything else seems to fit as snugly as the names).

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