Friday, September 17, 2010

The Corruption Enablers


Here are a few of the journalists who did major stories on Jonathan Franzen recently without mentioning his egregious 2002 NEA grant problem:

David Ulin, L.A. Times
Jocelyn McClurg, USA Today
Lev Grossman, Time Magazine
Jennie Yabroff, Newsweek
John Barber, Toronto Globe and Mail
William Skidelsky, The Guardian (UK)

Given the amount of press attention Mr. Franzen is receiving, I could name many others. The question is why the established media are ignoring this aspect of Franzen's public history, when any cursory examination should come up with the information. It's at least as relevant to the matter of Jonathan Franzen as the overblown Oprah carnival. In fact, the NEA scandal gets to the heart of how the American literary world operates. I'll speculate that these distinguished alleged journalists are more in the nature of well-presented shills whose actual purpose is to sell products. The NEA story might damage the Franzen product in a way the Oprah silliness never could. There's nothing wrong at all with sales, with ballyhoo, with carnival barkers in straw hats and colorfully striped shirts. These "journalists" writing glorified p.r. releases should simply be up front about what they are.

(Now that Franzen is rolling in the bucks, is it too much to ask for him to pay back to the broke federal government that ill-gotten NEA grant?)


King Wenclas said...

The problem isn't just with the established media, who are busily flushing themselves down the cultural toilet anyway. It's with the mass of writers themselves, who refuse to stand up for themselves by demanding fairness in the operations of American literature.

Anonymous said...

Well, King, maybe the problem is with the National Endowment for the Arts, which has, despite this and other embarrassing instances in which writers who are comfortable by any measure have received federal funding, declined to institute means-testing in the same manner as they might for, say, applicants for food stamps or other government assistance.

It was certainly an avaricious act on Franzen's part to accept this money, but why, really, should he pay it back other than as a gesture that might satisfy you and others who were offended by his having taken it to begin with? Does nothing to change the institutional problem.

Then again, maybe there's a reason that exceedingly few grant and fellowship programs that bestow awards in the arts require such means-testing. Personally, on the one hand I think that the federal and state government programs that bestow these funds are more liable, at least in the public eye, than others to ensure that the money isn't simply padding an already-wealthy person's pockets. But, as a past applicant for such awards, I can say that the reporting burden that would be required to demonstrate that I was actually in need would have been onerous and discouraging, not to mention intrusive. I also think that it's quite clear that very few of such awards, publicly funded or otherwise, are in place to assist impoverished or struggling artists, but to foster the creation of art. In effect, the mandate of the NEA isn't to fund artists but to help insure that art in America is nurtured. Given the relatively minuscule size of its budget, it's a ridiculously quixotic mandate that tends invariably to express itself by plying a steady course toward the middle -- exhibitions of impressionist art, retro-jazz performances of the kind favored by Wynton Marsalis, classical music programs featuring nothing written after 1920, and, yes, writers like Jonathan Franzen. If it offends you that Franzen gets twenty grand, then it must drive you batty to think of institutions literally bedecked with wealth, like major art museums, collecting their checks. And well it should, honestly.

Maybe the NEA is a ridiculously stupid idea, maybe it's smart, maybe some things we rely on and find familiar would vanish or shrink without NEA funding, maybe radically innovative art would be spurred by it if the NEA's funding was multiplied a factor of ten, maybe we'd just have warehouses full of government-subsidized art no one wants, as was the case in certain northern European nations not so long ago. Who knows?

In any case, this is far from the point. I think Franzen tends to be the exception. Good or bad, most of the individual artists funded by the NEA seem to be what are called "working artists," i.e., they don't have large reserves of wealth on which they can rely to provide them with independent incomes. I know you happen to think that writers with five-figure book contracts or teaching jobs qualify as "wealthy," but that's too silly to address here. The point is that Franzen seems to be a relatively rare exception; the honor system more or less seems to be in place, at least as far as the NEA is concerned; you rarely see bestselling writers' names on the list of recipients. Maybe you can take comfort in the fact that a lot of people feel as if it was shameful that Franzen took that money when it was offered to him, that he sold his honor cheap.

King Wenclas said...

You give me much to respond to right now. I'll touch on a few quick points.
-The Franzen matter offends me as a TAXPAYER. I work fairly hard for very little money. Almost half of it is chopped up for various. It offends me to my core to know even a dollar of it is going to subsidize a guy whose quite wealthy now, and has always, always, been privilged-- at least from the standpoint of 95% of the rest of us.
-Re means testing. Well, ya know there's means testing for just about everything else the gov't does. For the poor-- those least able to know how to navigate the layers of the system-- there's a nightmare of paperwork and bureaucrats to go through, for things as simple as getting unemployment or food stamps. Universal health care, now, is a great idea in the abstract, but poor people well know what it'll be like: endless lines; endless bureaucracy; those most in need of it will avoid or drop out in the same way homeless folks would rather keep their dignity on the street than deal with nightmarish pod do-gooders who run shelters. Etc etc.
In other words, what makes you so special?
-There wouldn't be a need for means testing if there truly was, as you say, an honor system whose participants were honorable people. The reality is different. The reality is a horde of bureaucrat "writers" a la Seth A., Liam rector, Mr. Shinder, hundreds more, whose chief interest isn't art, but gaming the system to their own benefit.
-An honor system of any kind in society works only if there exists public sanction. Not government sanction, but other writers willing to stand up and say, "This is wrong!" Are they willing to do so? Notably not!
Look at the ULA's 2001 petition against the grant to Mr. Moody, or my recent PEN Petition-- or your cloak of anonymity.

King Wenclas said...

-You see, there are two ways to run a society. You'll have to choose which kind you want.
One is the Nanny State way, where people do whatever they want and leave it up to their Big Brother to step in when they get out of line. Otherwise, all is allowed. This was the cry of Moody defenders about his actions. "But after all, it was LEGAL!"
The other way is for people to be responsible, have character, and police themselves.
This is kind of the debate the entire society is having right now, isn't it?
What kind of America do YOU want?
-Personally, I believe only the most desperate should receive government help. This includes writers also. Which means, the standard creative writing prof living a comfortable boozhie existence in Vermont shouldn't have his hand in my pocket.
But there are writers who truly struggle just to survive. There are Francois Villons in this world. I know a few. Given a year off from working exhausting jobs, they might create some great work.
-Re the State encouraging artists. Look around you, man. This society is doing nothing BUT cranking out all kinds of "artists." There are a dozen art schools in Philly alone. You want writers? MFA programs are cranking them out by the truckload, free delivery overnight to your door.
The problem is that none of the millions of writers and artists is any good. Which gets back to the things I've been discussing on this blog. Why subsidize art nobody wants?
No, we don't need more mediocrity.
What we need is real competition. As I've said before, if I can raise any kind of a stake, I'll provide it. Give me five young writers willing to follow my aesthetic model, a bit of capital, and I'll do the rest.
You see, everything the system is doing now is having an opposite effect. Or maybe a direct effect-- it depends how you look at it.
When you protect writers through universities and non-profits, keeping them and their journals from the rigors of competition, then they won't compete. They won't be able to compete with the other aspects of the nation's culture. If you never take away the crutch, the body part withers.
Take away the protection of lit journals through removing their 901c3 status and they'll have to modify themselves, drop the boozhie posing, which is all they are, and try to reach the real public.
Radical thoughts!
ALL I've asked for in my actions the past ten years is a level playing field-- the huge advantages given a dead literary art perpetuated by the likes of Franzen Lethem et al by the established media and the monopoly conglomerates, whose key members are all of the same upper-class ilk, for the most part. They don't need state sponsorship on top of that!
Which is what my post these comments are attached to is about.
Thanks for your remarks.

Anonymous said...

You have every right to be offended as a taxpayer. But, of course, tens of millions of taxpayers are offended by things the government chooses to subsidize: farms, arms, banks, automobile manufacturers, social security, medicare, you name it. My only point here being that if you're taking the position that your outrage derives from a sense of government waste, then it must be a fraction of the outrage you feel toward more munificently funded programs. The defense department, just for example.

Your point about means-testing isn't quite clear to me. The government does engender bureaucracy, that's for sure. One nice thing about the NEA is that its paperwork burden is relatively light. Which is probably as it should be for funding for which many are eligible but for which no one is "entitled."

"In other words, what makes you so special?" You mean, why would I not want to spend hours filling out forms and providing documentary proof of my financial status in addition to the usual process of applying for a NEA fellowship? I don't see how this constitutes an assertion of my own status as that of a "special case."

I don't know that a horde of bureaucrat writers descends upon the NEA each year. I think it's probably thousands of writers of all kinds: good writers, bad writers, well-known writers, obscure writers, writers with lots of connections, writers with no connections whatsoever. Say what you like about the Guggenheim, the Whiting, the MacArthur, and so forth, but the NEA's choices seem to lean toward diversity and representativeness -- to a fault, I'd say. The minimum requirements for eligibility are to have published five stories in two journals over the course of the past seven years, or one book within that same period. Seems pretty democratic to me. I'll mention that applications are reviewed blind, too, although I'm pretty certain you'll tell me that since everybody within the system is in on the game that doesn't really matter.

The ULA's petition against the grant to Mr. Moody was protesting a private foundation's decision to award money on the basis of its own privately established selection criteria. If it was indeed a "corrupt" award, it was corrupt only in an extremely abstract moral sense. My "cloak of anonymity," on the other hand, is just a matter of my not having a Google account. I can put a name in if you like. I wonder what it would reveal to you?

Anonymous said...

What kind of America do I want? If we're playing fantasy games, I'd like an America where I could, say, work at a bookstore and have the option of living within a one-income household in a good neighborhood without having to worry about being crippled by childcare and health insurance costs. That would be terrific. The America that existed before, say, 1965, the year the NEA was established.

That "standard creative writing prof" sounds pretty much like a figment of your imagination, King. The average creative writing prof I know is a person who works at two or three or even four different colleges within their region as an adjunct, with no benefits and no security. They usually do some kind of freelance work on the side.

Why subsidize art nobody wants? You're contradicting yourself. The point is that EVERYBODY wants Franzen. What made his grant "wrong" is not that he was writing some obscure work that nobody could possibly be interested in, but that he was a bona fide publishing phenomenon who sold millions of copies of a single "literary" book.

What will you do with the five young writers, given a stake? Give out your own awards? What if one of the writers agrees to follow your "aesthetic model," but it turns out that he went to an MFA program? What if it turns out that she comes from a family with money? What if he's poor as dirt and a raging populist but can't write his own name? What if he's poor, populist, and wants to stray from the linear, realist-naturalist line? Your problem is that you're trying to triangulate here, your own particular sort of means-testing combined with a desire for political compatibility plus an insistent, yet still vague, demand that a certain "aesthetic" be the sole model for artistic production.

King Wenclas said...

I disagree with nearly everything you say. Your statements show the narrow universe within which you live. Half of America, at least, is unseen by you.
NEA grants democratic?
If you look at those who actually receive them, you'll see most do live quite comfortable lives. The list of those speaking at the Pavilion Saturday exemplify this.
Jane Smily has received two NEA grants. Think she's been on food stamps lately?
You should get out more. "Everybody" wants Franzen?? No, only many of those still reachable by the mainstream mass media hype machine, which has created great buzz for him within some narrow parameters, a kind of last gasp flexing of power. How many books will actually be sold? A million? 300,000? Out of a nation of 300+ million?
97% of Americans don't know who Franzen is, and couldn't care less. His case is a good example of how media creates illusions-- perception is reality. The importance of publicity, which I'd never deny.
You're wrong about the Moody grant. there's nothing private about the Guggenheim. It's a publicly-regualted tax shelter. Funds are removed from taxation with the understanding that the foundation will serve the general public; i.e. a charitable purpose.
Was Mr. Moody in need of charity? isn't the idea of him receiving a grant of tax-sheltered money yet another example of rich people gaming the system for their own benefit?
Finally, I'm not trying to impose an aesthetic on anyone. Please stop looking through the wrong end of a telescope. An aesthetic has already been imposed. I'm trying to broaden the aesthetic, the notion of what is or isn't considered acceptable literature.

Anonymous said...

Of course you disagree.

I'm not going to spend any more of my time defending how the NEA allots its grants. You can cherry pick the "quite comfortable" writers from among all who've received them all you want. But the fact is that U.S. Code Section 954 stipulates that "excellence and merit" are the criteria according to which applications for funding should be judged, not need.

Moody is, in fact, a donor to the Guggenheim Foundation. To what extent, I don't know. You may be interested to know that other foundations donate money to the Guggenheim. Another, and probably more pertinent, fact, though, is that while as a 501(c)3 organization the Guggenheim Foundation is grouped along with charitable organizations it is not, strictly speaking, one itself.

"Finally, I'm not trying to impose an aesthetic on anyone." Really? Didn't you just say, "Give me five young writers willing to follow my aesthetic model, a bit of capital, and I'll do the rest"?

King Wenclas said...

??! I'd like to compete! That's a far cry from imposing my vision.
Your argument is fundamentally dishonest because it assumes that I have the power and leverage to "impose" my vision.
But the fact is that I have no power, no leverage, no resources.
My ideas are like a quick match tossed against an ocean.
I'm a solitary voice-- in part because the System, and its apologists and its apparatchiks, tolerate no alternative ideas. They want no real competition-- or any competition, really.
Why else are you here?
I'm a threat to nobody. My ideas aren't about to hold sway.
Yet you feel the need to counter what I say anyway.
Why is that?
I think it's upsetting to System minds to know of the very existence of someone who thinks differently from themselves.
It's the cognitive dissonance idea again-- the need to resolve or eliminate disharmonies within the mind.
By the way, when Moody makes donations, he's getting a tax deduction for them, isn't he?
(Re NEA: Living in the real world, it's the nature of how institutions and people operate that grants are going to go to the best well-connected. It's the nature of the beast. I've looked at the NEA many times over the years. The time Liam Rector publicly destroyed my newsletter at Bennington's summer workshop in the 90's was because the issue discussed the then-incestuous relationship between the NEA and AWP-- of how writers took turns being grant-giver and recipient. Another issue which upset some people was when I made noise about well-connected billionaire Jean Stein receiving NEA grants on a yearly basis for her lit-journal Grand Street, which was particularly outrageous.
I have no faith whatsoever in the ability of aristocrats and plutocrats, or apparatchiks,to behave honestly.)