In 1967, the novelist John Barth, then teaching at SUNY Buffalo, made an infamous argument for literary experimentation. First delivered as a lecture at the University of Virginia, he warned students and faculty about “the used-upness of certain forms” and “the felt exhaustion of certain possibilities”—by which he meant “the novel, if not narrative literature, generally, if not the printed word altogether.” In the speech, later published in the Atlantic as “The Literature of Exhaustion,” he urged his contemporaries to write with “ironic intent,” to demonstrate they knew what writers had already accomplished, and to create original works of literature by writing about “the difficulty, perhaps the unneccessity, of writing original works of literature.” The traditional elements of fiction (plot, character) could be resuscitated, but they would need to be deployed differently.
In the decade that followed the lecture, this call for self-reflexive fiction was answered by writers like William Gass, Thomas Pynchon, and, predictably, Barth himself, who asked readers of his 1968 novella Lost in the Funhouse to literally deconstruct the book by cutting a Möbius strip from its opening pages. Along with Toni Morrison and Ishmael Reed, these writers ushered in the era of literary experimentation that we now call “postmodernism.”
Nearly half a century later, we find ourselves at a different sort of crisis point. Radical literary experimentation continues, but it has become the privilege of a few. In Barth’s day, a robust welfare state supported writers. Public patronage programs provided new classes of Americans with the resources needed to write and, through financial support, enabled them to take aesthetic risks. The upshot was a more diverse literary world—racially, politically, and aesthetically.
But times have changed. No longer supported by the state, today’s writers must meet market demands. Those who succeed often do so by innovating no more than is necessary. Many of today’s most celebrated writers marry experimentalism with accessibility; they produce prize-winning fiction with just a dash of formal excitement, enough to catch the eye of cultural gatekeepers but not so much that it renders a work unmarketable. They forge aesthetic compromise and favor political consensus. Their work reassures readers more often than it unsettles them. This isn’t so much bad literature as boring literature. After all, what’s more exhausting than reading, time and again, experimentation you’ve come to expect?
Art nearly always needs a patron—a person, or an institution, to provide financial support. This support might come in the form of regular commissions, steady employment, or a stipend for a certain period. It may take the form of studio space or money for materials. But without regular and sufficient income, the creativity of the artist can be compromised. Dependent on an unpredictable market, she will take fewer risks, aesthetically and politically. Patronage structures, by contrast, allow the artist creative freedom and create hospitable conditions for formal innovation and, potentially, political engagement.
Historically, the United States was hostile to arts patronage. There was no House of Medici in a nation that prided itself on democracy and social equality. Artists without independent means had to earn their living by cutting corners where they could. They used cheaper materials and produced more work, more quickly. Alexis de Tocqueville, gazing with dismay upon the New York City shoreline, reflected upon democracy’s incompatibility with artistic achievement. “In aristocracies a few great pictures are produced; in democratic countries a vast number of insignificant ones.” In such a democratic country, writers, too, will produce inferior work. “Authors will aim at rapidity of execution, more than at perfection of detail,” de Tocqueville predicted. “Small productions will be more common than bulky books; there will be more wit than erudition, more imagination than profundity.”
But literary history disproved de Tocqueville’s dour prediction. A democratic nation might not have a class of commissioning aristocrats, but it did have state institutions. Some artists found employment within these government agencies, thus acquiring an income to support their creative work. Starting in the nineteenth century, writers seeking day jobs turned toward federal and local governments. Both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville held appointments in state customs houses (their experiences in these jobs crop up in The Scarlet Letter and “Bartleby, the Scrivener”). Other writers found employment as consultants to national libraries, or as editors for government publications. For the most part, though, these were ad hoc arrangements, individual and temporary.
In the 1930s, the heyday of the Popular Front, the U.S. government developed the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), a New Deal initiative designed to offer “unemployed” writers guaranteed income. The FWP paid writers a fixed salary to produce travelogues and other commissioned writings; with regular paychecks, FWP writers could experiment with more creative projects at the same time. Over the course of eight years, the program employed over 6,600 writers, including Nelson Algren, Jack Conroy, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison. The FWP enabled new classes of Americans to become “professional” writers.
Zora Neale Hurston and folk musicians in Florida, 1935. Courtesy of the Lomax Collection, Library of Congress.
While employed by the FWP, these writers—most notably writers of color—wrote fiction that challenged the political status quo, and they revolutionized literary form in order to do so. To be sure, many of these writers developed their politics in pre-FWP years, but stable employment facilitated their political and artistic ambitions—by providing them with steady income, connecting them to other writers, and offering literary inspiration. From 1936–37, between posts at the Federal Theatre Project and the FWP, Hurston wrote her beautiful and troubling novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, a book celebrated today for its inventive use of black vernacular. Wright spearheaded the “Chicago Renaissance,” a creative community strengthened and supported by FWP projects in the state of Illinois. Meanwhile, in New York City, Ellison was conducting FWP oral histories when, as he reported it, he stumbled across a man who described himself as “invisible.” This encounter would be the genesis for his Invisible Man, surely one of the strangest and most significant novels of the twentieth century.
The political writings of Wright and Ellison foreshadowed the civil rights movement of the 1960s; the movement’s victories reshaped the welfare state. Under pressure from above and below, state spending on social services increased, providing more citizens with access to more resources. Public employee unions were granted additional bargaining power, and Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start were initiated. The same year that Lyndon B. Johnson established the National Endowment for the Arts, he also signed the Higher Education Act of 1965, making education—and the cultural capital it offers—more available to the middle and working classes.
Periods of egalitarian social reform tend to rework the artistic patronage system just as they do the distribution of wealth more generally. The liberalism of the mid-1960s, representing the peak of the incomplete project of American social democracy, facilitated the emancipation of the artist. On top of the welfare state benefits delivered to all citizens, many writers received direct financial support from the government. In the summer of 1965, one year after Lyndon Johnson promised to build a “Great Society,” the government established the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities (the NEA and the NEH), two new federal agencies that would fund artists, scholars, and the institutions that supported them. The cultural Cold War was ongoing, and Johnson, along with his predecessor John F. Kennedy, believed that the nation needed to win the hearts and minds of Europe. Experimental art—abstract expressionism, jazz—made for especially good cultural exports. In order to encourage such innovation, the government would need to offer time and money to artists while refraining from prescription or proscription. For the first time in the nation’s history, and despite its broader political motivations, then, the government would offer public aid to artists without asking for anything in return.
It is no coincidence that Barth’s call for (and writers’ embrace of) experimental literature came at a moment when American artists had never been more materially secure. Artistic experimentation depends on the material security that the welfare state provides. It’s easier to be avant-garde when you’re not wondering about the source of your next paycheck or worrying about prospective book sales. In the words of one grant recipient, responding anonymously to an NEA survey from the 1970s, federal grants offer writers “temporary freedom from a stultifying and paralyzing form of economic bondage.” For writers, economic freedom is tantamount to artistic freedom. The NEA redistributed such freedoms by funding writers who weren’t lucky enough to call financial security a birthright.
The NEA was a fundamental part of democracy’s expansion. Its Literature Program had two distinct but overlapping goals: to sponsor more exciting, experimental writing and to democratize the field of literary production. The fellowship program, founded in 1967, was the most important means it used to achieve both of these aims. Agency administrators recognized that writing fiction or poetry requires resources—time, money, childcare, travel—that few citizens could afford.
As poet and program director Carolyn Kizer put it, the fellowships to individual writers—totalling $205,000, roughly a quarter of the Literature Program’s budget in 1967—were designed to “buy time.” As Kizer’s words suggest, the NEA de-commodified time, granting it to writers who needed it most. Grant winners with dependents received more money than those without—this was especially important for women, who were often saddled with domestic work. Between 1967 and 1971, the NEA sent talent scouts around the country, looking for writers who might not have access to the traditional avenues for publication. “Discovery Grants” were awarded to these unknowns, including a young West Coast fiction writer and poet named Raymond Carver. With these efforts, the NEA reshaped literary production, transforming the conditions under which talented citizens lived and worked.
These state-funded writers, many from marginalized populations, experimented with literary form. The inaugural class of fellowship winners, who received two-year grants in 1967, included two socialist-feminist fiction writers, Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley. A former Young Communist, Olsen in particular revolutionized the writing and teaching of literature. Her fiction and essays about the American working class married unconventional, modernist form with radical leftist politics. In the years before and after she received the NEA grant, she clamored for revised university reading lists and increased financial support for women, writers of color, and members of the working class. She called these would-be writers the “silenced people” who, “consumed in the hard everyday essential work of maintaining human life,” rarely had time to produce creative work. How much great writing, she asked, has been lost to history? The NEA shared Olsen’s concern with amplifying historically silenced voices, just as it shared her belief that these voices would speak—would write—in radical, resonant ways.
For the NEA, this ambition led it to seek and support writers who lacked market appeal. In addition to granting fellowships to individual writers, the agency funded small, independent presses and avant-garde literary journals. When the agency compiled an anthology of American writing in 1968, it drew largely from the “little magazines,” literary journals that published work by young and unknown writers. One reviewer commented approvingly that the anthology mainly included “non-commercial” work, by fledging writers and by controversial figures such as Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones). The NEA provided writers with several different ways of circumventing the literary marketplace, freeing them to write fiction and poetry that was difficult, politically radical, or both.
Despite its penchant for niche literature, the agency flourished during the 1970s. The number of grants awarded increased each year, as did the money for each creative writing fellowship. By October 1977 the agency’s budget had increased from $2.5 million to nearly $124 million, thanks largely to the politicking of chair Nancy Hanks. During these same years, the government provided direct grants to some of the nation’s most contentious and innovative writers, including John Ashbery, Charles Bukowski, and Ishmael Reed. The literary climate favored experimentation: the decade also saw the publication of Toni Morrison’s debut The Bluest Eye, a novel that used wordplay to critique racist standards of beauty, and the rise of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, an avant-garde, politically leftist movement that challenged the conventions of lyric poetry. Though the era had its share of battles (the deputy chair once had to visit the offices of forty-six members of Congress to explain why a seven-letter poem deserved $750 in public funds), the 1970s were a high point for the NEA and for experimental literature as well.
Such a happy windfall didn’t last forever, though, and the winds started to shift in the late 1970s. In 1979 Ronald Reagan announced his campaign for the presidency, and some observers worried that he wouldn’t be as supportive of the arts as his predecessor. One year before this event, the novelist John Gardner had published a meandering, preachy, deeply idiosyncratic, but influential book, On Moral Fiction. Gardner believed that writers had lost their way—rather than seeking truth and affirming life, writers of the 1970s were more committed to cleverness, to novelty, and to forms of linguistic play that he called “texture.” Critics had been taken in by these language games. Gardner insisted that literature should move, even uplift, readers. Writers should love their audiences and should want to be loved in return. In preaching this sort of mutual admiration, Gardner took it for granted that writers and readers would share the same values, as well as the same social status. The idea that writing could offer valuable provocation or discomfort was left unexplored.
Gardner might not have been a great predictor of literary immortality—of all 1970s novelists, he conceded that Guy Davenport, Joyce Carol Oates, and Eudora Welty were the only ones whose reputations would maybe, possibly, endure—but the questions he raised about what writers owe their readers and about the value of difficult fiction would go on to color literary debates in the decades that followed. The success of Carver, Gardner’s student at Chico State who received NEA grants in 1970 and 1980, inaugurated an era of literary populism. Minimalist fiction, or “dirty realism,” practiced by Frederick Barthelme (Donald’s brother), Bobbie Ann Mason, Mary Robison, and Tobias Wolff dominated the literary scene in the 1980s. Writers associated with the movement, almost all of whom were white, claimed critical attention, literary prizes, and many NEA grants.
The rise of this form of realism forecast the conflicts of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the NEA met with increased resistance to its grant programs. The agency came under siege for funding (often indirectly) formally challenging, politically radical art by feminist, queer, and non-white Americans. With the support of fellow politicians from his own party, Republican Senator Jesse Helms launched a multi-year campaign against the NEA, charging it with funding “obscene” art by Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, and Karen Finley. The controversies surrounding these artists as well as several performance artists prompted the agency to experiment with a short-lived loyalty oath. More importantly, these difficult years led to the elimination of all grants to individual artists—except for grants to writers. Today, the NEA still awards $950,000 in individual fellowships for fiction, poetry, and translation, all of which are drawn from diminished public funds.
Castigated by the right for its irrelevance and indecency, scorned by the left for its cowardice in the face of prejudice and supposed philistinism, the NEA has lately turned to the market for guidance and started placing a few safer bets. In its first decades, the agency served as a literary bellwether, funding unknown writers, often at early stages in their careers. Though it still funds such writers, it also funds successful writers, who receive their NEA grant after winning major awards or writing bestsellers; such winners were more rare in the 1970s. Recent grant winners have included Jonathan Franzen, following the publication of his prize-winning and best-selling The Corrections; Cristina García, after she wrote the National Book Award nominee Dreaming in Cuban; and Jhumpa Lahiri, who, by the time she received her fellowship, had already won a Pulitzer for Interpreter of Maladies, a book that sold 15 million copies worldwide. Lesser-known writers still dominate the awards list, but the presence of writers like Franzen insure the agency against charges of idiosyncrasy.
Money that goes to a best-selling writer is money diverted from the writers who need it most—young, marginalized, politically radical artists who may never find market success, or who may not even desire it. On the whole, today’s writers are less materially secure than those of previous generations. They are more likely to be saddled with student debt, from undergraduate as well as graduate education. They are less likely to find day jobs that provide enough income to pay off loans, never mind to support creative work. The “hard everyday essential work of maintaining human life” has only gotten harder today, when healthcare, housing, and other essentials have become unaffordable for many.
These material realities increase risk aversion, both for public arts agencies and for the artists they support. Many recent NEA Literary Fellowship winners exhibit a desire to appeal to cultural gatekeepers and to the majority of book-buyers, rather than to challenge them, as welfare state–era writers might have done. These writers forge compromise between innovation and tradition, between their creative impulses and the appetites of their audiences. This is especially noticeable in fiction by writers like Jeffrey Eugenides, Jane Smiley, Jennifer Egan, and David Foster Wallace, all NEA grant winners in the post-controversy years.
Consider the case of Egan, winner of an NEA grant in 1991 and of the Pulitzer in 2010 for A Visit from the Goon Squad, a book celebrated for its apparent refusal of literary convention. The book’s most celebrated experiment was a seventy-page PowerPoint presentation, a section critics called “moving,” “touching and effective,” and “the novel’s most radical element.” This section may be formally intriguing, but it is not politically radical. Unlike Barth’s Möbius strip, which asked readers to destroy the commodity they had just purchased, the PowerPoint asks readers to look back to the corporate world beyond the book’s page. This is where Egan herself looked for inspiration. “My sister works at a global management consulting firm,” she told fellow novelist Heidi Julavits. “She lives and breathes in PowerPoint. One of the templates in my PowerPoint story I stole from her, actually.” The corporate world starts to look like a benign source of aesthetic inspiration. But the dominance of the private sector over the public sector often means the suppression of other forms of radicalism, by writers whose formal experiments would challenge corporate power rather than reify it.
Even when Egan and her peers offer critiques of global capitalism, they rarely suggest that this new economic order should be dismantled entirely. They stage political conflicts, but they often avoid taking sides. They don’t communicate the clear political commitments found in Olsen’s unconventional essays, or Ginsberg’s incantatory poetry, or Reed’s freewheeling fiction. Instead, these writers oscillate between political engagement and a retreat to the private sphere. Franzen, a grant winner in 2002, is one such equivocator. In The Corrections, he places political critique in the mouth of a rogue Marxist professor, Chip, who fails to convince his ingenuous students that they should be critical of emotionally manipulative advertisements, such as an ad for the “W— Corporation’s Global Desktop Version 5.0,” which features a woman coping with a cancer diagnosis and her supportive, multicultural friend group. Chip hopes his students will be critical of the corporation’s marketing strategy, which involves profiting from female pain, but instead they celebrate it. “Yes, these ads are good for the culture and good for the country,” his most intelligent student retorts. “Here things are getting better and better for women and people of color,” she continues, “and all you can think about is some stupid, lame problem with signifiers and signifieds.” The book vacillates back and forth between opposing political positions, aligning first with the critics and then with the corporations, ad infinitum, until the domestic reunion that constitutes its conclusion. The ending doesn’t resolve the conflicts presented in the novel’s prior pages, but it does suggest that the savvy person is ambivalent about the new neoliberal order rather than opposed to it.
Egan, for her part, sides with the students in Franzen’s novel by suggesting in her own work that the prevalence of corporate influence might not be so bad. The last section in A Visit from the Goon Squad begins with a confrontation between the artist and the corporation. Bennie Salazar, a washed-up record mogul, cajoles an idealistic and unemployed sound mixer into joining a grassroots marketing campaign. “You think it’s selling out,” Bennie says. “Compromising the ideals that make you, ‘you.’” When the mixer, Alex, responds in the affirmative, Bennie rejoices. “See, you’re a purist. . . . That’s why you’re perfect for this.” Flattered, cynical, and desperate, Alex stops making art and starts selling it. He spreads the word about one of Bennie’s clients, a children’s musician, via a network of friends and fellow artists, who are ranked by need and corruptibility (these are different qualities). The campaign is a success, and the musician’s show goes off without a hitch. The only suggestion that anything is amiss is a brief reminiscence Alex offers on the novel’s final page, when he remembers “his young self, full of schemes and high standards, with nothing decided yet.” It’s yet another backwards glance in a novel full of them. Nostalgic and tired, like Alex, we start to see “selling out” as inevitable.
It’s hard to fault writers who consider “selling out,” or who shape their work to meet the market’s demands. In the post-welfare United States, many of the patronage institutions that shielded writers from the market are on the wane. From the moment of its origin, the NEA has supported a range of literary institutions, some private and some public—artist colonies, magazines, publishing houses, and writer residencies. Today, the NEA’s annual budget is $146 million; adjusted for inflation, this represents less than one-third of the funds the agency had at its disposal during its heyday in 1977. Cutting its budget to this degree disturbs an entire, delicate literary ecosystem.
Like some of the novelists it funds, the NEA has coped with these budget cuts by relying on private corporations. Its Challenge America Grants Program requires grant recipients to raise private donations to match promised public funds. This past year, grant recipients raised $600 million in private funds, exceeding public grants by seven to one. When the program started, private donations were supposed to supplement public funding; today the former severely outstrips the latter. In a sense, the NEA has become semi-privatized.
With the gutting of public arts agencies and the welfare state more generally, many of today’s writers have retreated from the public sphere and are holed up in private and increasingly corporatized universities. Endowment managers are their patrons now, rather than representatives of the public. More and more writers cycle through temporary faculty appointments, teaching at the undergraduate level and in MFA programs. At a time when some English departments must make do without a medievalist or an eighteenth-century specialist, creative writing is flourishing. Since 1975, the number of MFA programs across the nation has increased tenfold. Some critics have also complained about the standardizing of literary style, while others, such as Junot Díaz, have voiced concerns about the lack of diversity among MFA faculty and students. In last year’s New Yorker, Díaz ridiculed Cornell’s writing program: “That shit was too white.” He meant not only the bodies in the classroom but also the books—the canon of writing taught and discussed in workshop. Díaz has founded his own workshop in response.
The university, then, is not always an ideal patron. Students training in the visual arts have already started questioning their arrangements with the university. Last May, the entire class of the University of Southern California’s visual arts MFA program dropped out, citing a decrease in resources and an increase in debt. “We trusted the institution to follow through on its promises,” they wrote in an open letter. “Instead, we became devalued pawns in the university’s administrative games.” How long until creative writing students are forced to make a similar protest?
Even if MFA programs improve their teaching and grow their funding, public arts patronage is still crucial. The material security offered by a strong welfare state encourages writers to take risks they wouldn’t otherwise. When writers are forced to conform to consensus positions, either political or aesthetic, the literary world starts to look depressingly monochrome. Literature that appeals to the mainstream isn’t just politically anodyne—it’s aesthetically predictable. We need a literary world, and a political order, in which writers, from a range of social positions, feel encouraged to surprise their readers. We need fiction and poetry that will confuse us and trouble us, challenge us and incite us. Perhaps this, too, is literature we can come to love.
Maggie Doherty is a lecturer at Harvard University, where she teaches American literary and cultural history.