October 2, 2012

Junot Diaz is doing okay


The MacArthur Foundation has announced their fellows for 2012, and among a crowd of recipients that includes an economist, an astronomer, a geriatrician, and one lucky mandolinist, this year’s prize has also been awarded to Junot Diaz.

The MacArthur grant is an unusually rich prize, giving each of its recipients $500,000 over the span of five years in order to further their work. As a grant, the money comes with no strings attached other, perhaps, than those of expectation and  envy.

Junot Diaz is undeniably one of the most beloved fiction writers in the country. Stories from his collection Drown are widely taught, and his 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao earned him the NBCC Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The book is beautifully written, but with vernacular narration to smooth out the prose. It has tragic history, both personal and national (it opens with an extensively footnoted primer on the brutalities of the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic). Oscar Wao also pulls the neat trick of being a very specific look at identity, but an identity in enough turmoil that its white middle class readership might feel safe in their voyeurism. For three years or so every bookstore around the country rang with bookseller reassurances: “Oh no no, it’s about nerds. It’s about teen girls. It’s not only about DOMINICAN teen girls.”

Diaz’s latest book is by all accounts also a delight. The story collection This is How You Lose Her is even sexier and better wrought than his novel, leaving reviewers to hail it and, in the same sentence, spout unfortunate phrases like “juicy Spanglish vocabulary” (Kirkus) or “potent blend of literary eloquence and street cred” (O Magazine). Three weeks after publication the hardcover edition is still number eight on the Times bestseller list and ranked 35th among all books on Amazon.

My point, perhaps, is not a revolutionary one, but simply this: if this grant is meant to give artists and other thinkers the wherewithal to pursue their next grand project, it is wasted on Diaz. The man is fine. He doesn’t need it. Unless Diaz has plans for some sort of undersea ballet staging of his works, he simply doesn’t need the money. Diaz is already only teaching at MIT on a lark. Even if he began literally writing each draft of his stories on stacks of hundred dollar bills in big toddler-fist sized crayons, crayons which were themselves made out of endangered upper mongolian civet musk gland drippings colored with powdered fossilized dinosaur blood, he would not be able to use up this money.

I am engaging in a facile complaint, I know. But last year Peter Hessler and Kay Ryan were among the writers receiving the grant. Hessler, at least, might use the money to buy five hundred or so flights to China. Kay Ryan, again, I’ve no idea. She is a lovely poet, but her poems are not written with lasers on the surface of the moon.

I’d be outraged if these grants were no longer given to writers. Just because they’ve chosen a relatively easily funded outlet for their talents doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be rewarded. But when, in their discussion of selection criteria, the MacArthur Foundation writes “emphasis is placed on nominees for whom our support would relieve limitations that inhibit them from pursuing their most innovative ideas” I’m sometimes left to wonder if those “limitations” entail having one too few swimming pools in an author’s house. I am asking, I suppose, simply for the removal of that language. If it’s to be a pile of money thrown at authors we as a nation collectively admire, I’m all for it. The more the better. And maybe the mandolinists of the world do need the money to break down obstacles to their creativity. But Junot Diaz? Dude is fine.



Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.