Issue 129, Winter 1993
In the anniversary issue I wrote a notice which on reflection may have seemed too critical of the National Endowment for the Arts’s Literature Program. This summer—with admittedly some misgivings—I was persuaded to serve on a National Endowment panel (the prose section of the Individual Fellowships for Creative Writing Panel) and thus was able to get a look at the procedures first-hand. I came away impressed. The panelists do an enormous amount of work. In my own case I was required to read 350 manuscripts (the authors’ names are kept anonymous), writing at least five lines of comment on each, and then to meet in full discussion (there were twelve prose panelists) for three days at the Endowment’s headquarters in Washington to pick the grantees. The diligence and care with which these proceedings were conducted were reassuring.
It is worth noting that the Literature Program can fund only 8% of its applicants. Of the $151,000,000 allocated by the N.E. A. for project funding in fiscal year 1993, literature received a little over $4,000,000—about 2.8 %. I was given some interesting comparisons: The city of Munich spends more on literature than the U.S. So does the Basque Ministry of Culture. The Canadian Province of Ontario spends twice as much. In fact, Canada as a whole spends over $24,000,000 (Canadian dollars) each year on literature. As most authors in the U.S. remember ruefully, especially on April 15th, Ireland feels so strongly about its writers that they are allowed to live there tax-free.
The conclusion here is that the literature program should receive far more funding from the Endowment. Surely it seems insufficient that literature should be pegged at 2.8% of the country’s cultural output. An increased outlay for literature would be easier to do, of course, if the Endowment itself received more support.
While in Washington I met briefly with Jane Alexander who is the newly-picked head of the Endowment. She reiterated what one so often hears—that the best leverage in dealing with legislators is to walk into their offices armed with letters. So often, she said, she is confronted with congressmen who say they would like to support her, but what about this—and they produce boxes of letters condemning the N.E.A., the bulk of them form-letters from right-wing organizations. It is sad that legislative decisions are based to such an extent on the flow of mail from constituents, especially if some of it is blatantly bogus, but that being the game, The Paris Review urges its subscribers, contributors and readers to write their congressmen and -women in support of the National Endowment and its aims. There are well over 1,000 literary magazine and presses. It seems to us that these organizations are almost obligated to repeat messages of this sort to their constituencies—it is so obviously to their benefit. At the very least, it would be heartening to the Endowment to know that its cause is being supported by those whose welfare it is trying to improve.
Speaking of heartening letters, messages from two heads of state arrived too late to be included in the fortieth anniversary issue of The Paris Review where they belonged. They appear on the two pages which follow this notice. Our gratitude to both gentlemen.