Is David Simon the Right Pick for a MacArthur?

I’d say No.

Okay: He made The Wire. It’s a great show. But the criteria for the MacArthur awards are

  1. extraordinary creativity,
  2. promise for future advances, and
  3. “potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work”

Simon clearly scores on 1 and 2. But 3? It’s hard to see how another $500,000 and some recognition will significantly increase David Simon’s capacity to keep doing his work. (To his credit, he said he felt he didn’t quite belong among the other 22 who got awards this year.) For other people, meantime, it would make all the difference.

It may seem petty to gripe about this. Yet it seems a shame when, somewhere out there, some person doing great but unrecognized creative work is either giving it up or doing only a fraction of what they could do because they have to keep a day job or lack other necessary resources. There must be thousands. The MacArthur program generally does a great job of finding these people. It found some wonderful ones this time around, like jazz pianist and composer James Moran, vioinist and music educator Sebastian Ruth, bee researcher Marla Spivak,  novelist Yiyun Li, and historians Shannon Lee Dawdy and Annette Gordon-Reed. It’s also nice to see, in a day when science funding is under fire, some scientists score this prize, my favorite this time being biophysicist John Dabiri, who uses jellyfish to study everything from evolution to the fluid dynamics of the human heart.

But I wish more of these prizes would go to the untenured, the independent, and others who work rather in the dark. People, for instance, like Ted Ames, a fisherman who worked for years collecting fishermen’s tales in Maine and turned them into a novel and important finding about cod populations along the New England coast. Both Ames and that study went almost completely unnoticed until the MacArthur award threw light on it. The MacArthur foundation would seem to have the resources to find more such people — people to whom some limelight and $500,000 over 5 years would be utterly novel and transformative, rather than an addition to existing security and recognition.

Please: Less TED, more Ted.

Simon was one of 23 award recipients. I’d love to know who was 24th on the list.

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