What’s Wrong With NEA Literature

by Richard Kostelanetz (July 2013)

Some three decades ago I wrote a critical study of literary granting in America titled “The Grants-Fix.” I thought it a sequel to The End of Intelligent Writing (1974), which was then and probably still is the most penetrating critique of literary politics in America. (It’s featured in the Britannica entry on me.) I focused on literary granting, because I knew these programs best, and so identified problems at the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the Coordinating Council on Literary Magazines. A small publisher named Ross-Erikson contracted and announced my book before the company folded. Though most of the chapters appeared in literary magazines, it never found another book publisher. One lefty press, I recall, wanted an exposé of how the Ronald Reagan administration had corrupted granting, which was barely true at the time, since NEA failures had little to do with Republican/Democratic politics.

In every program are two sets of people—administrators and judges, who are sometimes called panelists and other times councilors. The assumption is that administrators should be neutral, simply processing applications. However, one theme of my critical analysis was that funders differed from each other—differed not only in goals but also in rules, procedures, and behaviors. At the New York State Council in particular, administrators were notorious for withholding or emphasizing crucial information that reshaped the decisions of panelists who became dummies. If decisions failed or warranted criticism, administrators would blame the panelists. (That became one reason why NYSCA alumni weren’t employed elsewhere in the grants industry.)

A second trick employed by scheming administrators is establishing prerequisites not only to favor certain possible recipients but to exclude others. At NYSCA, notorious NYSCA, these prerequisites could be cited when the administrators wanted to exclude from competitions certain applicants while neglected in accepting those applications favored by the administrators, who thus became de facto judges, exceeding their assigned role. This analysis led me to conclude with this rule: The function of exclusionary criteria is giving administrators judicial powers to which they are not entitled and, thus, additional rules are designed to give administrators more power. Keep this rule in mind as you read ahead.

Applications for individual writing grants at the National Endowment for the Arts used to be simple. From the 1970s to the end of the decade, the applicant filled out a two-page application and enclosed a writing sample. To establish a certain level of professional accomplishment the applicant writer was asked to list a certain number of recent publications. All this information went into the USPS. A pool of judges then made recommendations to the literature program’s panelists, which chose the winners.

Somehow perhaps a decade ago, NEA-Literature instituted a more problematic procedure for its individual fellowships by requiring submission through the Internet. The first time I tried it my application was blocked because I had Mac computer. I recall telephoning some young woman at the NEA’s Literature program who smugly recommended that I go to a public library to place my application, even though I couldn’t figure out how to present my writing sample through a computer not my own. The result of this obstacle was excluding from the competition not only writers who owned the wrong computer, as I did, but all those lacking sufficient computer moxie, as us older applicants may have as well. Essentially the computer obstacles instituted discrimination that was unacceptably ageist.

As NEA-Lit has continued to support this obstacle, some older writers able to do so could get a younger person to navigate the computer obstacle on their behalf. This I did more than once, applying as recently as early in 2013 for a grant for prose writing. Even though the guidelines demanded that the applicant establish eligibility by citing publication of “a volume of short fiction or a collection of short stories; or a novel or novella; or a volume of creative nonfiction,” I, innately cautious, always fearing disqualification over a trivial detail, listed not one but five books recently published by five different presses.

Surprised I was to receive a letter from Ms. Eleanor Steele at the NEA’s Literature program disqualifying my application:

Our guidelines state that the following may not be used to establish eligibility:

·         Collaborative work

·         Any publication by presses that: publish work without competitive selection or a stated editorial policy; publish work without professional editing; require individual writers to pay for part or all of the production costs; or require writers to buy or sell copies of the publication.

·         Work that has appeared in a publication for which you are the editor, publisher, or staff.

Ms. Steele concluded, “The five publications listed in attachment # 4 of our application fall under one or more of the categories listed above.” Remember that I needed only one to qualify.

How did she and her colleagues know what she claimed about the five different small presses publishing me? While one was indeed my personal press located where I reside in Queens, NY, the second was Luna Bisonte in Columbus, OH, surely venerable. Apprehensive about how this reference might be misunderstood, I cited within my application an elaborate URL for a single perfectbound volume actually incorporating three books—one wholly by me titled InSerts, a second by its publisher John M. Bennett, and a third representing a collaboration between us. This publisher I met before he issued a book of mine.

A third book wholly mine, Minimal Erotic Fictions, appeared by Redfoxpress based in Ireland. (See: redfoxpress.com, which includes a link to my book’s interior pages.) This publisher I met only after he published me. The fourth pair of books cited in my application, also wholly mine, Fict-Ions/This Sentence, came bound back to back from Blue & Yellow Dog founded more recently by Raymond Farr, III, in Ocala, FL. (It likewise has an eponymous website, which similarly offers a link for viewing interior pages.) This publisher I’ve never met. Autonomedia in Brooklyn published the fifth in my application, Skeptical Essays, after four other books of mine.

When I first received Ms. Steele’s letter, I didn’t have a copy of my application, which I recall could not be copied, and so in my initial reply to her I submitted a list including two additional small publishers of books of mine—NY Quarterly and Black Scat—sending copies of my letter to everyone concerned. Both chiefs of these last two wisely wrote Ms. Steele to ask if their presses would be disqualified at the NEA. Neither has yet received an answer.

Looking back at the exclusionary criteria cited by Ms. Steele, I wondered how she and her colleagues knew that all four of these books and their small presses could be flunked because they didn’t “publish work without competitive selection or a stated editorial policy; publish work without professional editing”? Since I doubt if an independent investigator could duplicate her conclusions after consulting the presses’ websites, I asked Ms. Steele, “Since you seem to know which presses do not qualify, I assume you have a master list of those that are acceptable.” Consider her response: “We do not keep a list of ineligible presses. We look at each one on a case by case basis against our criteria.” With the last aside hasn’t she revealed that the NEA is improvising selectively? Remember that I needed only one acceptable press to satisfy the application prerequisite. As some say, “special for you.”

Nonetheless, the problems with these criteria are twofold. The first reflects a failure to understand how the best small presses work. As I’ve written in my “Smallpress Classics” in progress, if publishing decisions at commercial presses reflect the expectation of earning money and those at university presses reflect power within its hierarchy, small presses publish what they love—politically, esthetically, sometimes personally. So respectful are small presses of what they love that they rarely edit what they print.

Veteran writers recently publishing with both the literary-industrial complex and university presses have reported that their manuscripts are rarely copyedited any more. Some authors indeed hire their own copyeditors. So may I wonder if the exclusionary criterion of “without professional editing” was used “on a case by case basis’” to bounce an applicant citing a book published by a university press or a commercial house? Simply, the criteria quoted above don’t reflect the realities of literary publishing today. Indeed, so demonstrably illiterate are these exclusionary principles that, may I judge: Whoever invented and enforced them should be disqualified for life from overseeing literary funding.

However, the more serious problem with the exclusionary criteria is that the administrators can cite them selectively to knock out applicants they don’t like while neglecting the exclusionary criteria with those they prefer to favor. May I venture that many applicants still in the NEA competition cited publications did not completely satisfy these exclusionary prerequisites and, further, bet in advance that some of the eventual recipients might have likewise defaulted. After all, someone at the NEA had to do some work to research publishers “on a case by case basis.” Such sleight of hand reminds me of the literacy test for voting in the ante-bellum South, to be invoked only when the gatekeepers wanted to prevent someone from casting a ballot.

When I asked Ms. Steele how many applicants were similarly excluded, she refused to give me a statistic, though all would agree that one must be known. Since she refused to give me the names of other applicants likewise dumped, may I invite them to write me at my eponymous website or any publisher of this exposé or the acting chairman of the NEA. In short, the NEA rules become hoops that demonstrate nothing more than an applicant’s ability to jump through NEA hoops.

Know that I’ve also asked how to file a Freedom of Information Act request, as I’ve done about previous NEA applications of mine. As these FOIA requests take time to bear fruit, results may appear in a later version of this essay. What should be done if I discover that an earlier application for a writing fellowship had without my knowledge been similarly disqualified illegitimately? [It took me ten years to get the 1985 information reported in "Sleight of Hand, or How an NEA Fellowship to Me Was Reduced and Nearly Killed," Culturefront, IV/2 (Summer 1995), pp. 51, 52, 76. This incomparably informative exposé was reprinted, revised, in Article, I (Spring 1999), 14 pp.; in NY Arts, IV/8 (September 1999), pp 47, 49; and in my Book Art and Alternative Publishing (Amazon Kindle, 2012).]

Since I challenged Ms. Steele, I received from her superior Ms. Maryrose Flanigan, “Division Coordinator | Literature & Arts Education, National Endowment for the Arts,” this reply:

I have reviewed your correspondence to the agency’s literature staff regarding your recent application. Eligibility for the fellowships is evaluated based on complete and properly submitted documentation. Your application was determined to be ineligible due to incorrect or insufficient publication information provided. Staff correctly followed all policies and procedures. Please be advised that this ruling represents the agency’s final determination on the matter.

 To wonder how Ms. Flanigan came to her conclusion, I asked if she had personally examined the possible credentials of the four presses whose names were in my application. Since no answer came, may we conclude she probably never did? If someone else discovers that her declaration lacked support of her own research, hasn’t she set herself up to be removed from her position?

Why such selective persecution happened to lil’ ol’ me invites considered speculation. Some NEA administrator might have disliked my exposure of administrators’ excesses in The Grants-Fix, which has been available on Amazon Kindle for a few years now. (Four decades ago, the literature program director Leonard Randolph was especially notorious.) Or he or she might have resented the fact that over two dozen small presses have on their own volition published books of mine for much the same reason that many more have published books by, say, Allen Ginsberg and Noam Chomsky. (Some people love their work enormously, even while others disparage it.) Or that I cited five publishers, instead of just one? Or someone at NEA-Lit might have resented another fact—that I have received ten—yes, ten--individual grants from the NEA but none in literature. This statistic I’ve often cited to make fun of NEA-Literature, as indeed it deservedly does.

I recall one administrator at NEA-Lit telling me perhaps two decades ago that this numerical discrepancy reflects NEA (government) judgments that I must be a better media artist or visual artist than a writer. Such opinions would surprise anyone familiar with my work, beginning with those including my name in highly selective encyclopedias and histories of contemporary American literature. Perhaps the implicit point of this administrator’s smug judgment is that government power embedded in an NEA staff position can muddy critical intelligence.

Or consider that the person knocking out my application might be reasonably horrified about worsening administrators’ scheming at NEA-Literature. She or he calculated that, if this cultural scandal were brought to my attention, as indeed it was, I would write about them critically, probably as no one else could, thanks, perhaps prompting internal reform. And incidentally inviting me to publicize my earlier writings on literary granting. This I have done. Thanks?


Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz’s work in several fields appear in various editions of Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, Webster's Dictionary of American Writers, The HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Directory of American Scholars, Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in American Art, NNDB.com, Wikipedia.com, and Britannica.com, among other distinguished directories. He has received over two dozen grants from funders both public and private.


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