by Henry Farrell on September 20, 2005

“Matt Cheney”: voices a common complaint about the MacArthur foundation awards.

bq. I’m glad Lethem was chosen, and certainly am excited for him, but this choice continues the unfortunate trend of the MacArthur award often going to writers who have already found a lot of success. Imagine, for instance, how much it would have changed Lethem’s life to get this award not right now, when his books sell well, but ten (or even five) years ago, when the $500,000 would have done exactly what it is supposed to do: free the recipient from financial considerations that limit their ability to experiment.

And indeed, a cursory glance at the list of awardees tells us that well over half of them are over 40, and/or well established in their career paths. Of course, the MacArthur foundation has excellent institutional reasons for choosing people who already seem to have established themselves – to do otherwise would be to take much bigger risks that MacArthur awardees are going to flake out later or have mediocre careers. But then, would you do better? If you think so, your nominations (more or less serious please) invited in comments for people who _should_ get awards in the future. Less serious speculations as to the most plausible blogger to receive a MacArthur are also invited (my money would be on “Cory Doctorow”:



ben wolfson 09.20.05 at 5:36 pm

But Cory Doctorow is a blowhard!


ben wolfson 09.20.05 at 5:37 pm

I would like to see Jorn Barger get a MacArthur grant, if only for the reactions.


Susan 09.20.05 at 6:01 pm



Steve 09.20.05 at 7:21 pm

(my money would be on Cory Doctorow).

Aaaah! Please, God, no, not even if Henry is imaging someone who would get their award for being a blogger. Perhaps especially not if.

(My actual bet, since innovative charities and third-world relief organizations don’t seem to be blogging so much, would be noted LiveJournaller Bram Cohen. Though I’d be a-rootin’ for Ray Davis.)


Matt McGrattan 09.20.05 at 7:25 pm

I’m curious about the relative distribution of award fellows (by discipline). There are, for example, relatively few philosophers and even fewer classicists but huge numbers of historians represented.

Not very helpful when it comes to suggesting a deserving recipient, I know.


Rasselas 09.20.05 at 8:37 pm

If he got a MacArthur, would Doctorow relent from either (i) telling us what he doesn’t eat and doesn’t drink and (ii) pitching a childish fit whenever someone, somewhere, might conceivably be attempting to protect intellectual property?


Henry 09.20.05 at 8:55 pm

Hey, what’s with all the bitching about Cory? You may not agree with him, but he’s an incredibly smart and decent human being. And he’s fighting the good fight – if you think that the IP war is just over kids swapping MP3s on eDonkey, you’re sorely mistaken. Read Susan Sell for a corrective.

That said, Bram Cohen is an interesting candidate. As indeed is Ray.


James 09.20.05 at 9:13 pm

Justin Hall is the most deserving, if not plausible, candidate for a MacArthur grant. He pioneered the online personal journal before anyone else on the planet, and he has been fearless in exploring, embracing, and explaining new technologies. Also, if you explore his website deeply, you realize that he is a brilliant artist, in the tradition of Basquiat or Whitman, adept at rendering his experience as a seemingly endless series of passionate, explosive collages.


grackel 09.20.05 at 9:32 pm

Speaking of incredibly smart and decent human beings, my vote goes to the editors at the Poorman; that is, if the award were to actually be meant to further some sense of human enlightenment. No place on the intranet like it, to make one stop, smile and say no matter what else, not all is lost.


Steve 09.20.05 at 10:11 pm

And he’s fighting the good fight – if you think that the IP war is just over kids swapping MP3s on eDonkey, you’re sorely mistaken.

If this, rather than his 1337 treeware stylings, is the basis for his notional Genius Grant, why not Larry Lessig? The first blogger to win one is almost certainly going to be known for activities in the non-weblog world (as Cohen and Lessig are; sorry, Ray!), unless I’m missing the spirit of the game here. An artist, scientist, or programmer with a LJ or an academic blog seems much more likely to me to be first than a recognized “blog Genius”, which may have been what you were asking about.

Actually, I’m not sure it hasn’t happened yet (I don’t want to Google for the past few years’ candidates). It certainly will in a couple of years; Terry Belanger, one of this years’ winners, seems to be a fairly regular poster to SHARP-L and I’d be willing to put money on it happening within the next three years.


Nabakov 09.20.05 at 10:44 pm



Clancy 09.20.05 at 10:48 pm

Cosma Shalizi, but not because of his blog, probably.

I’d love to see Prof. B. get one.


Danny Yee 09.20.05 at 11:20 pm

Jorn Barger, now there’s an idea from left field.

I’m not sure a McArthur grant would make him any more independent, though.


Matt 09.21.05 at 1:10 am

Can it really be anyone other than Billmon?


ben wolfson 09.21.05 at 1:15 am

I’m down with Cory’s intellectual property crusades, but his writing (on BoingBoing, though the few pages of Someone Comes to Town… I read weren’t good either) is awful, tic-ridden shite.

I recently stumbled across a neat bit of breadcraft—seems some guy remixed his leftover roast beef by putting it between to slices, then mashing it up with some salad! I wonder if they’ll serve them at Disneyland.


ben wolfson 09.21.05 at 1:15 am

FUUUCK. “two”.


Seth Finkelstein 09.21.05 at 2:16 am

Well, when I was seeking support for my (now abandoned) censorware research, and people would give me “advice” to get a grant, I used to joke that the MacArthur Foundation didn’t take applications.

Anyway, per steve/#10, it would be useful to clarify “has a blog somewhere” vs “well-known blog” vs “blog evangelist”. A prominently blog-associated grant would be a very “trendy” choice, and I’m not sure if they consider that good or bad.


Doug 09.21.05 at 5:04 am

Maybe a joint grant for Giblets and the Medium Lobster.

Fafnir’s pretty good at fendin for himself, so he won’t need it. An Chris is still tied down under the rocks after drinkin too much frappucino-stuff anyway.


Another Duncan 09.21.05 at 5:10 am

Chris Locke!


a 09.21.05 at 6:23 am

In mathematics the MacArthur foundation gave an award to Wiles – after he had solved Fermat’s Last Problem.

As I recall when he died MacArthur wanted his foundation to give the money to untested but promising individuals.

Instead a board slanted towards the humanities give lots of money to the usual suspects. A real pity and a great waste.


Steve 09.21.05 at 7:53 am

Cosma Shalizi

I very nearly suggested him instead of Bram Cohen, actually, but I’m going to stick with my guns. He’s certainly more along the lines of what I suspect Henry was looking for — people largely known to the online community for online writing, rather than for anything else they’ve done — than Cohen, who per Seth’s taxonomy is just a smart guy with a blog somewhere.


Jeremy Osner 09.21.05 at 7:54 am

It would be wasted on the Medium Lobster as he exists outside our terrestrial plane and is not the slave of necessity.


Ray Davis 09.21.05 at 10:36 am

I like and respect both Lethem and Doctorow, but both seem comfortably established at present. (And frankly, both were astoundingly productive even in less comfortable circumstances.) I don’t know Berube, but he seems to enjoy his day job.

I think someone like Samuel R. Delany, on the other hand, would produce more work with a nest egg, assuming he didn’t pull a Wittgenstein and give it all away. Kelly Link and Gavin Grant get by, but they have a solid record of doing good deeds with every bit of funding.

But I’d be most excited about the money going to a complete wildcard like David Cleary (who? exactly.), or best of all to a comics artist. When I consider the effort they expend, the pathetic rewards they receive, and the lasting rewards they provide, they seem to me America’s greatest source of cultural martyrs — yes, even more than jazz musicians or experimental pulp writers.

Steve and Henry, thanks for the daydream. Neuraesthetics! A Free Online Serial Intellectual Revolution! In Onegin Stanzas! And a Pony! Maybe Jonathan will put in a good word for me. Now, back to refactoring Java code….


Rob Breymaier 09.21.05 at 12:09 pm

I’d like to see more civil rights advocates and other activists getting these awards. It would be great to see someone who’s doign great work on policy or research rewarded for that. Or, someone who comes up with real programs that help people. $500,000 would make a tremendous difference in most cases.


Eric Muller 09.21.05 at 5:07 pm


Ray Davis 09.21.05 at 9:32 pm

The thing is, though, Lessig and Doctorow and most activists already have organizations that could get that money directly. I mean, you give EFF half a million dollars and I guarantee Cory will be very happy but probably not write his novels much differently. And the MacArthur was specifically for rugged (if chipped) individualism, right?

Anyway, whether he needs the money or not, Lethem is a dedicated, ambitious, and sincere artist. If the awarders were interested, there’s probably someone closer to poverty and complete oblivion, but they could’ve gone farther and found much much worse. I’m glad he got it instead of David Brooks, Camille Paglia, or John “Why aren’t you writing about Henry James?” Leonard, and for all we know those were the other choices.


lalala 09.21.05 at 11:23 pm

In the “people in general who should get a MacArthur,” I nominate the musician Tim Eriksen. He’s best-known (which is to say, somewhat known) for singing old american ballads and is considered by many who are serious about “folk” music to be one of the best, if not the best, of his generation doing that. He’s also a multi-instrumentalist, playing excellent banjo and guitar and increasingly decent fiddle. He has a history doing south indian classical music playing the vina and is I believe quite accomplished at that. He’s intellectually brilliant.

And he fits the preference for people who could actually use the money.


Jonathan 09.22.05 at 1:53 pm

I do put in a good word for Ray.

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