Literary Granting

What that last statement indicated, we now see, is that he [Leonard Randolph, c. 1975] was finally taking control of the NEA’s literature program and the selection of its panels, and would replace the commercial hacks with small press people. Otherwise, I remember being needlessly gentle about his impotence before my criticisms. I should have pointed out that many criticized by me proclaim that they tend to agree with my remarks except when talking about them, distancing themselves from my other targets but also implicitly validating my critical authority, thanks. Gentility with Randolph was unwise, for anyone so easily flattered is also easily angered. Hell has no fury like a grants administrator caught doing something wrong.

The Grants-Fix (1987)

This episode illustrates a recurring problem with literary contests. When the ratio of applicants to awards is low—when, for example, one in two is a winner—every application is customarily presented, one at a time, to the selection panelists who then decide by majority rule whether or not each applicant should be funded and, if so, for how much money. However, when the ratio of applicants to winners exceeds four to one, the procedure usually changes. There is no individual review before the panel. Instead, in order to be considered for an award, an application must be chosen from the pile by a judge who then recommends it to his or her colleagues.

The Grants-Fix (1987)

It is a rule in statistics that the larger the pool from which the selecting is made, the more likely it is that the selection runs not to the best but to the average. This rule, in a general way, accounts for why, in high-ratio grants competitions, most of the winners are usually not the best in a field but considerably less. One further reason for this tendency towards mediocrity is that judges who serve only once (or sometimes twice, as at the NEA) feel more inclined to take care of as many friends, debtors, lovers and colleagues as they possibly can in their one chance at spoilsmanship. Panelists serving several years in succession may feel less obliged (and perhaps also fear that if they show excessively personal bias, they won’t be invited back). Secondly, given the pluralism of literary opinion and literary politics in America, many of the best applicants to a particular competition will not have a personal ally on a particular panel; therefore, only a few of these best will be chosen (while aggressively partisan judges will obtain a certain perverse satisfaction from “rejecting” the best of the rest, along with the rest of the best). It follows that if many winners are protégés and debtors, they are not only less likely to be generally known in the literary world; they are more likely to be mediocre.

The Grants-Fix (1987)

In some NEA literary competitions (and at CAPS in New York State), applicants in poetry, fiction and playwriting are asked to erase their names from samples of their work; so that all applications, identified only by number, can supposedly be judged without regard to the authors’ names. It doesn’t work this way in practice, however. In a hypothetical example, a judge can tell from the “anonymous” work before him that applicant number 666 is his best buddy because, after all, he has been reading his buddy’s work, in the course of exchanging manuscripts, for many years. Since no one else on the panel is familiar enough with applicant number 666’s work to recognize that 666 is the judge’s best buddy, nobody would make the obvious objection that would occur if 666’s name were still on the manuscript. The judge advocating 666 finds that another judge in favor of, say, number 613 is sympathetic to him. They vote for each other’s enthusiasms and, voila, both 666 and 613 win.

The Grants-Fix (1987)

What has recently distinguished the NEH from the other foundations that award individual grants and also from American cultural life as a whole is the disproportionate presence of large social minorities, which is to say women, blacks, and Hispanics. This peculiarity can be found not only in the composition of the NEH staff and then of the NEH grants panels but in the awarding of funds (all illustrating the First Law of Grants that the winners reflect the choosers).

The Grants-Fix (1987)

How neat it was to stack the panel with supplicants and also how typical of NYSCA, where as a rule no one is appointed to the literature panel unless he or she “would work well” (in June Fortess’s phrase) with the existing panel, which is to say that he or she will fall neatly into line. To be blunt, panelists at NYSCA-Literature have been chosen to be a squad of rubber-stamps, especially with regard to those applications in which the administrator was, as she sometimes said, “particularly interested.” . . . The customary wisdom about grants is that “it helps to have a friend on the panel.” At NYSCA, it is evidently better, much better, to be there yourself.

The Grants-Fix (1987)

Another item that distinguishes NYSCA from other funding agencies is its application form, which is far more complicated and artificial than that required by the NEA, among others. The NYSCA form is longer, with at least ten pages (and often more), compared to the NEA’s four. It is filled with questions that elicit answers that reveal nothing, and then with requests for “financial” data that are necessarily less factual than fictitious—in sum, a satirical model of the kinds of pathological busywork that would make normal people collapse in laughter, were NYSCA’s staffers not so solemnly insistent that no application can be accepted unless it is filled out completely. . . . What seems quite ludicrous to outsiders is really quite terrifying to insiders who must regurgitate all this baloney, as well as quite discouraging to beginners and to applicants who had previously wasted their time applying for nothing (i.e., been “rejected”); but instilling that terror is, of course, precisely the initial insidious purpose of all the complexity. A second motive for it is favoring those applicants who have already received sufficient funds (preferably from NYSCA itself) to employ professional bookkeepers and “development” personnel—applicants like, you guessed it, the Metropolitan Opera, the Museum of Modern Art and even Poets and Writers, Inc., the Big Boys who can thus use prior NYSCA funds to competitive advantage in further NYSCA sweepstakes. In addition, the pages of trivia and complex budgeting multiply the number of ways in which those who already dominate NYSCA can, if they want, find exclusionary fault with upstart outsiders. In truth, the insistence upon junky detail also enhances the power of the NYSCA administrators who become the only sure guides through the application maze). Everyone with NYSCA experience discovers that, with applications as with other matters, the administrators help some applicants more than others and can be utterly unresponsive to those applicants they choose to ignore. To be curt, the NYSCA application form itself is an obstacle course that ultimately favors two groups of people—those who have already passed through it successfully, and the guild of gatekeepers.

The Grants-Fix (1987)

The courts are, of course, the court of last resort. It is my own considered opinion that if any aggrieved applicant seriously sued NYSCA for cheating him or her out of grant that might otherwise be theirs, he or she would win, for one simple reason. Defendants who refuse to answer questions from inquiring reporters will do anything, even wicked illegal things, to avoid testifying under oath about anything connected to NYSCA corruption. Not only would such defendants fear that their testimony would lead to further suits from NYSCA applicants who were likewise cheated; but if the defendant were caught lying under oath (especially when one individual contradicted another), they would be personally vulnerable to indictment for perjury, which is a crime prosecuted not by an independent citizen but by the state; indeed, perjury is a felony whose penalties customarily include both fines and imprisonment. If, on the other hand, the NYSCA defendants told the truth and nothing but the truth, they might also be subject to prosecution for those criminal activities that survived the statute of limitations.

The Grants-Fix (1987)

These five panelists are customarily all senior professors, for the basic rig of NEH juries is that academics are chosen to choose fellow academics. Such panels sooner include members of racial and ethnic minorities, as long as they are professors, than a representative of America’s principal scholarly minority of publishing scholars who, for one reason or another, are not affiliated with universities. Therefore, it is not surprising that nearly all winners of senior fellowships are likewise fulltime university professors. Indeed, it could be said, in retrospect, that academics took over the NEH just as they took over the Guggenheim Foundation, where at the beginning, over fifty years ago, by contrast to now, less than half the winners of fellowships had university affiliations. All this rigging is contrary to the truth that humanistic scholarship in America is by no account a wholly academic enterprise.

The Grants-Fix (1987)

Obviously, editors who worry about their immediate bosses also tend to worry about the opinion of their literary idols, whose professional approval they crave the most, and that outlook explains why even the best subsidized university magazines invariably lack the edge and direction that makes not only for innovative taste but literary influence. It is not for nothing that most original and consequential cultural magazines in modern America have not been university-based but independent: Partisan Review in its prime (the 1940s and into the 1950s), Eugene Jolas’s transition, Dwight Macdonald’s politics, Scofield Thayer and James Sibley Watson’s The Dial, etc.

The Grants-Fix (1987)