13 Amazing Writers Who Received Support From NEA Grants
When President Trump unveiled his proposed “skinny” federal budget a couple weeks ago, we learned that too many Americans don’t understand the mission, the importance, nor the reach of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). That ignorance didn’t stop many of them from agreeing with the President’s stance to eliminate all federal NEA funding, which in FY2016, was only .004% of the federal budget.
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is a federal agency created by congress in 1965 to support art and art education nationwide through a variety of programs, including NEA Literature Fellowships through NEA grants. Since 1966, the NEA has awarded over 145,000 grants across all its programs and funds over 4,500 projects annually.
Each fellow receives the precious financial buffer to focus on writing, research, travel, or other pursuits that can advance their career (luxuries which aspiring writers can only dream of). It takes years (even decades) of hard work and thousands of hours to meet the eligibility requirements for an NEA grant. Recipients are selected through an anonymous process that focuses on artistic excellence. NEA fellows are not merely good writers, they’re the prevailing voices from different generations of writers and thinkers. They’re the best of the best. Dozens of writers who have received NEA grants have also won other prestigious awards like the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize.
NEA grant recipients are taught in classrooms and colleges across the country. They’ve influences the way we think about major American issues like war and equality. These authors have changed the lives of millions of readers by connecting with them, making them feel less lonely, and opening our eyes to both unique and relatable experiences. Without them, our world just wouldn’t be the same.
1. Tea Obreht (2016)
With her stunning 2010 debut, The Tiger’s Wife, the Serbian-American writer carved out her place in the contemporary literary landscape. No one can sum up her masterpiece quite like the author herself. In an interview with a Cornell University student journalist, Obreht said, “It’s a family saga that takes place in a fictionalized province of the Balkans. It’s about a female narrator and her relationship to her grandfather, who’s a doctor. It’s a saga about doctors and their relationships to death throughout all these wars in the Balkans.” Did we mention she was only twenty-four at the time?
2. Alice Walker (1978)
Just five years after receiving an NEA grant, Alice Walker was awarded the National Book Award for The Color Purple, her best-known work. Shining light on racism in America, as well as the oppression of an overwhelming patriarchy, this bestseller was adapted for both the stage and screen and is a staple in American classrooms. Her career reaches back to the 1960s, including a 1975 article written for Ms. Magazine entitled “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” which is believed to have sparked a revival in the interest of Zora Neale Hurston’s works.
3. Susan Choi (2000)
Choi began her career at The New Yorker as a fact checker. Less than a decade later, she received her NEA grant. Noted for her vibrant characters and lush, descriptive settings, Choi was also a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award in 2009 and the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. Her works revolve around the complicated emotions surrounding sexuality, politics of power, and racism. You know, just a little light reading.
4. Denis Johnson (1975, 1981)
Denis Johnson is one of two people on this list who have received two NEA grants. While multiple fellowships are not uncommon, they’re not exactly all that common either. He was also awarded the National Book Award for his long-awaited novel Tree of Smoke in 2007 and was then a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2008. Never one to shy away from controversial topics, Johnson’s work has explored the Vietnam War, substance abuse, grief, and a changing American landscape.
5. Maggie Nelson (2011)
Part memoir, part critical theory, Nelson’s 2015 release The Argonauts is a genre-bending nonfiction masterpiece. While she’s most widely known for her nonfiction work, Nelson also has a vast poetry portfolio. Her work often centers around issues like sexual violence, family, sexuality and gender, and motherhood.
6. Joyce Carol Oates (1969)
A dark tone, vibrant descriptions, and courage to explore some really grim subject matter like rape, kidnapping, and death sets Oates’ apart. They’ve also made her a literary hero for countless women. Besides being one of America’s most prolific contemporary writers, four of her works have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. Joyce Carol Oates, the Susan Lucci of books.
7. Jonathan Franzen (2002)
Trees fear Franzen. Essentially modern suburban epics, his tomes capture the changing (and often dying) American Dream and nuclear family. A roaming, open-world-like narrative and painstaking details have contributed to both his commercial and critical success—a feat rarer than it should be. His novels have appeared on countless shortlists for awards and book clubs. He was even featured on an episode of The Simpsons. There’s no greater sign that you’ve made it in American than being drawn into a cartoon.
8. Jhumpa Lahiri (2006)
Lahiri’s debut short story collection Interpreter of Maladies won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. She was also appointed by President Barack Obama to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. Her success has brought more attention to the struggles of Indians and Indian immigrants, as well as exploring themes of family, motherhood, and death.
9. Richard Ford (1980, 1986)
Widely anthologized, Ford’s stories often revolve around the struggles and malaise of the lower-middle-class, earning him a spot in the literary movement critics called Dirty Realism. Not only did he receive two NEA grants, but Independence Day was the first novel to win both the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award.
10. ZZ Packer (2010)
There’s no other way to put it. Packer’s 2003 short story collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere was an absolute smash hit, earning many accolades from prominent newspapers like The New York Times, featured in Oprah’s Book Club at the height of the club’s popularity, and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.
12. Jeffrey Eugenides (1995)
Of Eugenides’ three critically acclaimed novels, Middlsex is his most famous. 800 pages long, the behemoth recounts three generations of an intersexed man’s family who have been effected by a mutated gene. Heavy with allusions to Greek mythology and the exploration of gender identity, the bestseller sold over four million copies and received the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. One of over fifteen honors throughout his career.
12. Sherman Alexie (1992)
Alexie is a Spokane-Coeur d’Alene novelist and short story writer. Heavily anthologized and often banned, much of his writing draws from his experiences as an Indigenous American and growing up on a reservation. One of his best-known works, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, was adapted into the film Smoke Signals for which Alexie wrote the screenplay.
13. Allen Ginsberg (1979, 1987)
One of America’s most beloved and provoking poets, Ginsberg helped define and shape a generation of counterculture writers and artists. A prolific writer and political activist, in his most famous work, Howl, Ginsberg denounces rising capitalism and conformity in the United States.
Of course, this is just a short list. Since 1966, the NEA has awarded over 144,000 grants across all its programs.
Learn more about past NEA grant recipients.