Writers' Corner

History of the NEA Literature Fellowships: An Introduction

By Amy Stolls, NEA Literature Specialist

[Note: The following essay appears in NEA Literature Fellowships: 40 Years of Supporting American Writers, the 2006 NEA publication celebrating the Arts Endowment's support of the nation's creative writers.]

One sweltering summer day in the nation's capital, when the bureaucratic static of meetings and deadlines and clerical crises had peaked, I looked at our wall of fellowship applications and said to our hardworking intern we need art. After eight years at the agency, I knew the feeling of being buried in thousands of folders and files and piles of paper three-hole punched, boxed in, and taped shut. I knew, too, that when the job felt like a job, it was time to remind ourselves why we do what we do, and why we love it. We grabbed copies of a manuscript from the stacks and took a moment to read. And we were transported.

When the language sings, you can find yourself: in a civil war or a morning routine, a filthy fifth-floor walkup or a thousand acres of sagebrush and sky, staring and listening and understanding the pain of a wounded soldier, the rage of a silenced citizen, the simple joy of kicking a stone. On this particular afternoon, we were led to a crescendo of a moment, powerful in its subtlety, of an old Jewish woman who, after fifty years of sleeping through suburban afternoons and snapping insults, whispered for the first time the circumstances of her horrific capture during the Holocaust. We ended the story with our hands over our hearts, our breath quickened, and a visceral desire to say to everyone in the office read this! Then we wanted to know who this writer was.

Art leads us to the artists because we are curious creatures. How do they do it? we wonder. If only a few hundred literary authors in America can make a living from royalties on books alone, how do most writers find the time and energy to write with night shifts and dirty diapers and a continual stream of rejection letters? They struggle, might be one answer. Or they stop, might be another. "If man needs bread and justice," wrote Albert Camus, "he also needs pure beauty, which is the bread of his heart." If it's a struggle to find this bread of the heart because it is not being created and not reaching audiences, then the logical next question for us as Americans should be: how can we best help?

For 40 years, the National Endowment for the Arts has been asking that very question. The answers haven't always come easy, but if you look through the following list of 2,756 writers and translators who have received NEA Literature Fellowships, you'll see a varied landscape of the best contemporary literature America has to offer. And if you take into consideration that the majority of these writers received their fellowships early in their careers, when they most needed financial support and acknowledgement to keep them writing, you'll understand why we at the Endowment feel we have something to celebrate. In its noble and unprecedented service to American letters, the Literature Fellowship program has made an invaluable contribution to the manifold expression of American culture.

A Unique System

The NEA Literature Fellowship program is arguably the most egalitarian grant program in its field. The $20,000 fellowships for general writing-related costs are highly competitive, but unlike most other literary awards, they are selected through an anonymous process in which the sole criterion for review is artistic excellence.

How, then, is it possible to ensure the diversity of the group of writers to whom we give grants? We assemble a different panel of judges every year, each diverse with regard to geography, ethnicity, gender, age, aesthetics, and life experience. This system helps, but it's no guarantee; a Latina poet, for example, can speak out for poetry by and about Latinas or be its harshest critic. And yet, the NEA's commitment to artistic excellence leads consistently to diversity. Take the 42 prose Fellows from FY (fiscal year) 2004: they hailed from 22 states; 43 percent of them were women; and they ranged in age from 27 to 58. Also demonstrating the openness and inclusiveness of the program is the fact that 93 percent of them were first-time NEA grant recipients. The two things the 2004 Fellows all have in common? They are American, and their writing made a panel of distinguished authors sit up and take notice.

The fundamental emphasis of the program has always been on artistic excellence. Despite an anonymous process, the Endowment has had an outstanding track record of finding and supporting talent. For example, 46 of the 70 recipients of the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and Fiction since 1990 were previous NEA Fellows. All but three received NEA Literature Fellowships before any major national award, usually at least a decade earlier.

In the Beginning

In May 1966, eight months after the NEA and its advisory board - the National Council on the Arts - were established, Council members Ralph Ellison, Paul Engle, Harper Lee, and John Steinbeck proposed the development of a program to provide grants to creative writers.

While the Endowment awarded individual grants to all types of artists in 1966 - Donald Justice, X. J. Kennedy, Léonie Adams, and W. D. Snodgrass among them - a formal program to support creative writers began in 1967 with 23 individual grants to such writers as William Gaddis, Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley, May Sarton, Richard Yates, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. With his grant money, Singer was able to focus on completing his novel The Manor; 11 years later, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Similarly, numerous poets well known today - Hayden Carruth, Maxine Kumin, Robert Duncan - were awarded NEA grants that year at a time when their national literary reputations were still developing.

To facilitate the new program, the Endowment appointed poet Carolyn Kizer in 1968 as the first NEA Literature Director. From that time to today, the NEA Literature Program has been committed to the support of the individual writer.

For the first six years of the program, there were several variations of such support. While most of the NEA's grants were not controversial, the agency learned early on that it would be criticized for decisions, including ones it did not make directly. For example, in 1970, the NEA gave a grant in support of The American Literary Anthology, edited by George Plimpton. Under the guidelines then in place, editors of leading literary magazines were asked to submit works of authors presented in their magazines that year. These authors were paid a cash award and included in the anthology. The program ended in part due to delays in publication of the first volume, concerns of self-sustainability, and what became the NEA Literature Program's first controversy. Aram Saroyan's seven-letter poem - lighght- for which a federally funded effort indirectly paid $750 - was among those selected for the anthology. Though the poem was picked by Plimpton rather than an NEA panel, it caused a flurry of agency criticism. Michael Straight, then deputy chairman of the Endowment, was personally called to the offices of 46 members of Congress to explain the matter.

Other individual grants in Literature made an immediate impact on developing writers. The Endowment gave grants to writers to visit predominantly black colleges in the South. It gave grants to help writers and other artists teaching in institutions of higher learning to take one-year leaves to pursue their creative work. And it gave grants for travel or research or finishing a work-in-progress. Most of these grantees were hand-selected by a Literature advisory panel.

The issue of whether to fund established writers for their accomplishments or help younger writers find time and resources to write was at the forefront of the debates in the early days of the program. For a time, the Endowment gave lifetime achievement awards designed to attract national attention to writers of significant accomplishment, writers such as John Berryman, Denise Levertov, Wallace Stegner, and Gwendolyn Brooks. These fellowships never garnered enthusiastic support from Congress, and even in the arts community one could hear rumblings about "aesthetic partisanship."

Discovery Grants

The Endowment initially decided it could make a greater contribution through Discovery Awards to emerging writers. The Endowment hired "talent scouts" to find these gifted, financially needy, unknown writers. The response from the scouts was "overwhelming," claims a 1967 report to the Council, citing "a young Negro poet who supports her three children by running a general store in Alabama," and another "young Southern writer, blind since birth and seriously crippled in infancy, who has managed to struggle through her teacher's certificate, and is now teaching young children in Tennessee, and writing poems and stories for three hours each evening." Grants were then awarded according to need: $1,000 to the single writer without dependents; $1,500 to the writer with one dependent; and $2,000 to the writer with two or more dependents. Among these recipients one can find the 25-year-old Alexander Theroux and the 26-year-old Nikki Giovanni.

The Discovery Awards didn't last long. The first advisory panel on literature, consisting mostly of editors and publishers, held its first meeting in September 1970 and recommended these awards be terminated. Members voted almost unanimously in opposition to the addition of economic need as a determining factor in making grant selections. In 1972, therefore, the Endowment began what can be called the precursor to the current system - a competitive fellowship program based on artistic merit.

Creating the Process

To receive a fellowship in the early 1970s, a writer had to be nominated by an established writer. An oversight committee composed of a broad spectrum of publishers, editors, agents, critics, and other experts in the field from around the country selected the nominators - among them James Dickey, Eudora Welty, George P. Elliott, Kenneth Koch, Adrienne Rich, and William Stafford. (The Endowment publicized the names of committee members and nominators to avoid the perception that decisions were being made in secret.) The nominators were to recommend potential writers who had published a book or at least two short stories or poems or essays in magazines, or had a play staged. From their recommendations, the NEA Literature Fellowship program was launched with 27 awards.

When the system of nominations was replaced with an open application policy in 1974, the Endowment received a whopping 1,500-plus proposals, of which 120 were awarded grants at $5,000 each (the number of applications escalated to nearly 2,500 the next year). Reflective of the time, most of them were from men, and more than half were from poets. Four years later, the number of successful fiction applicants would substantially exceed the number of poets. And by the mid-1980s, applicants would come to represent American writers living in all 50 states and Washington, DC, and women would make up a significant portion of each year's grantees. What hasn't changed significantly over the decades is the percentage of applicants who are chosen to receive grants; on average it has been only five percent, with recent years showing two or three percent.

The Endowment periodically tweaked the fellowship process to meet the demands of the times and the ever-increasing workload. To adjust for cost-ofliving, the amount of the grant was incrementally increased over the years. Film and television scriptwriters were transferred to the Endowment's Media Arts Program; playwrights were sent to the Theater Program. Guidelines were amended to accept manuscripts in languages other than English if they came with an English translation. Eligibility requirements became more stringent to address the growing number of applications. "Belles lettres" was added as a genre eligible for funding and then changed to "creative nonfiction." And when Congress significantly reduced the budget in FY 1996, the Endowment moved to judging genres in alternate years (prose one year, poetry another).

Translation Awards

Perhaps the most successful outgrowth of the 1980s was the development of a process to review fellowships in translation, which began in 1981 and flourished under the leadership of then Literature Director Frank Conroy. Translation Fellowships in poetry and prose are currently offered to published literary translators for specific translation projects from other languages into English. Unlike the other fellowships, the Translation Fellowships are not reviewed anonymously, and they can be for either $10,000 or $20,000, depending on the scope and merit of the project. To date, the Endowment has awarded 246 Translation Fellowships, bringing to the American public more than 200 foreign works in 46 languages from 60 countries. Among them one can find Khaled Mattawa's (FY 1999) translation ofWithout an Alphabet, Without a Face by Saadi Youssef, one of the Arab world's foremost contemporary poets who deftly shows us a glimpse into modern Iraqi culture; and Howard Goldblatt's (FY 1992) translation of Red Sorghum by Chinese author Mo Yan, which received publicity through the critically acclaimed 1987 film by the same name.

Transition: The 1990s

Throughout the life of the fellowship program, critics have questioned its worth or, in some cases, lobbied for its demise. Some criticism has come from writers. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for example, told the Washington Post in 1992 that he "objected to a welfare system that would turn wild artists into tame lapdogs." Many vocal critics came from the halls of Congress, which exercises legal oversight and budget control of the NEA, as it does with all federal agencies. "Aid to individuals is nothing more than a subsidy for hippies, beatniks, junkies, and Vietniks," stated one member of Congress during the Vietnam War. Congressmen with concurring views, if not concurring quotes, were successful in moving the House to curtail the Endowment's ability to award individual grants. The agency, however, made a strong case for the restoration of this power. A Congressional compromise allowed grants to continue, as long as the words "of exceptional talent" were inserted to describe persons who would be eligible.

A larger threat to the program, and to the agency as a whole, came in 1995 when measures emerged in the House to phase out the Endowment or, at the very least, slash the budget and abolish all grants to individual artists. The literature field, in pure grassroots fashion, rose up in protest to the cuts. Hundreds of writers published opinion pieces and wrote letters. Representatives from literary organizations held meetings every month and brought writers to Capitol Hill to meet with Congressmen, writers such as E. L. Doctorow, Wendy Wasserstein, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Walter Mosley.

"People all across America came together to prioritize the fellowships," said Gigi Bradford, NEA Literature Director from 1992 to 1997. "The individual fellowships made up 50 percent of our budget in literature, so we had a lot to lose." Ultimately, Congress voted to eliminate individual grants awarded by application in all disciplines, except for Literature Fellowships in poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and translation. (Congress also voted to continue two popular lifetime achievement fellowships awarded through public nominations - the NEA National Heritage Fellowships and the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowships.)

The Congressional decision to continue the Literature Fellowships affirmed the integrity of the anonymous panel review process and the undeniable excellence of Literature Fellowship recipients. "The committee recognizes that a great many of the grants to individuals have been for projects of superior merit and worth," states a 1995 majority report on the Arts, Humanities, and Museums Amendments from the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee. "It was a victory not to have to change policy," said Bradford. "After the cuts, there was intense Congressional scrutiny of the process, but it was always affirmed by both the agency and by erstwhile Congressional critics."

The Program Today

Celebrating the discipline from which he emerged, Chairman Dana Gioia has increased the allocation for support to writers, thus raising the number of NEA Literature Fellowships from 42 in FY 2004 to 50 in FY 2006. In addition, he has tightened the conflict of interest requirements for panelists both to ensure the integrity of the process and to prevent even the appearance of any conflicts. "The fellowship process for a public agency needs to be fair, open, democratic, and inclusive," stated Gioia.

Gioia also supported a policy shift in FY 2005, initiated by Literature Director Cliff Becker, to separate the review process for fellowships in translation from the review process in creative writing to highlight the importance of translation as its own art form. "The American arts are most vibrant when they include the best works of art from other nations," said Gioia. "Through our commitment to funding translation, the NEA has been an essential catalyst for bringing the world's literature to our country."

Since 1996, the number of Literature Fellowships has increased overall and the review process continues to impress its participants. "Scrupulousness was the watchword of those overseeing our discussions and our voting, and scrupulousness was our guide," wrote Elinor Lipman, a judge for the FY 2006 Creative Writing Fellowships. "My experience on the panel, listening and discussing, arguing or defending, restored my faith in level playing fields and art for art's sake."

The present-day NEA Literature Division administers several other programs in addition to the Literature Fellowships, all designed to build an infrastructure that can support American writers and connect them with communities nationwide. "Through its grants to literary journals and presses, literary centers, reading series, festivals, writers-in-the-schools programs, libraries, and other literary organizations, the Endowment ensures that the writing of our Fellows is published and preserved," Gioia stated. "We should remember the words of Whitman who said, ‘To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too.'" These grants to organizations connect Fellows with audiences across the country - from soccer moms to soldiers, radio listeners to subway riders, secondary-school students to senior citizens.

To further cultivate an audience for literature, Chairman Gioia announced in December 2005 the launch of The Big Read, headed by Literature Director David Kipen. Modeled after successful "city reads" programs, The Big Read is a national initiative to encourage literary reading by asking communities to come together to read and discuss one book. In partnership with Arts Midwest, the NEA will provide organizer's guides, reader's guides, teacher's guides, CDs of readings, a Web site, and additional funding to selected communities to initiate activities and partnerships with schools, arts organizations, and local government. "The NEA's landmark 2004 study, Reading At Risk, showed that literary reading in the U.S. is in steep decline," said Gioia. "No single program can entirely reverse this trend. But if cities nationally unite to adopt The Big Read, together we can restore reading to its essential place in American culture."

The Fellows

Fellows are freelance writers and university lecturers. But they are also registered nurses and gardeners, diplomats and farmers. One Fellow I called about winning a grant said she was a mother of 12. Another said he had been volunteering as a subject for medical experiments to make money and he was glad not to have to do that anymore.

Most Fellows will tell you the money they received provided an essential boost to their career. But they also will tell you the benefits of an NEA grant extend far beyond the cash. They'll tell you it allowed family, friends, and colleagues to accept them as serious writers, that it brought them into first or further contact with editors, publishers, and other writers at the national level. It got them invitations to conduct workshops, give readings, or teach. It allowed them to undertake longer or different kinds of work, to take risks, to write with confidence. And it gave them a desire to give back to their country.

In his final report at the completion of his FY 1999 grant, poet Dainis Hazners from Wyoming recounted the following anecdote:

At the feed store, buying grain for my goats and chickens, I was introduced to the new owner as Our Local Poet. "He's the one got that big award. Quite the honor."

"I was … shocked," I offered.

"You mean that NBA outfit back East?" the new guy asked.

"National Endowment for the Arts," I said, meekly. "Washington."

"That's it. I'm proud to know you!" he grinned.

"It's amazing to me," wrote Hazners, that "even after a year, people remember. I belong to them, in a funny kind of way - like the mountains and the bad weather, I'm out there somewhere."

May the bread of the heart be plenty, may the bakers be always out there. Happy 40th anniversary, NEA.