David Kipen’s entirely unofficial NEA exit interview


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David Kipen became director, National Reading Initiatives at the National Endowment for the Arts almost five years ago, when poet Dana Gioia led the agency. Much of Kipen’s attention went to the Big Read, a national literacy project; he was also instrumental in managing the all-about-Los Angeles U.S. literary presence at the international book fair in Guadalajara, Mexico. This week, he announced that he’ll be leaving the NEA on Dec. 31. Jacket Copy’s Carolyn Kellogg e-mailed with the one-time editor of the San Francisco Chronicle’s book review about what he’s done, where he’s headed and what will come next.

Jacket Copy: You’re leaving The Big Read at the end of the year. Will someone replace you?


David Kipen: Alas, no. Not imminently, anyway.

JC: What do you think were The Big Read’s greatest accomplishments?


The conferees commend the National Endowment for the Arts for promoting literacy and reading in the United States through the highly acclaimed Big Read program. The Big Read engages communities of all sizes and Americans of all ages by celebrating the literary works of American writers. Since 2005, the NEA has awarded grants--leveraged with millions of private sector dollars--in every State and virtually every Congressional district in the United States. The NEA study, Reading on the Rise, released last year, documents a definitive increase in the number of American adults who read with the biggest increase in young adults aged 18-24. This new growth reverses two decades of downward trends cited in previous NEA reports. The conferees remain committed to the Big Read program and direct the NEA to report to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations, no later than 60 days after enactment of this Act, with a detailed funding plan for the continuation of this popular and successful program.

JC: Do you know what kind of plans Rocco Landsman, the new NEA chairman, has for reading and literature?

DK: Again, alas, no. If I’d ever been in the same room alone with him, I might. And that’s Landesman, with an ‘e,’ by the way. Now he owes me.

JC: Was the environment in Washington what you expected?


DK: Yes, it’s just like you see on ‘The West Wing.’ Actually, your best guide to Washington is the novels of John Le Carre. The scene at the end of ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,’ where Leamas realizes that his side is protecting a total reprobate, while his cultured, honorable friend just happens to work for the other side? Or the moment in ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ when the traitor casually arranges with his captor where to have his final paycheck sent? Those little ironies? Vintage Washington.

JC: What were some of your memorable experiences from traveling the country? Did you write about them on the Big Read blog?

DK: I would never dream of steering anyone away from Start from the beginning if you have time, but an inevitably partial list of high spots would have to include all the great volunteers in Norman, Oklahoma; Topeka, Kansas; Kellys Island, Ohio; Rochester, NY; Enterprise, Oregon; Kansas City and St. Louis, Missouri; East Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Starkville, Mississippi; and all the orientation posts from Minneapolis. In more ways than one, I could go on. Oh wait, I just thought of twelve more...

JC: Are you planning to return to California?

DK: You bet. I wouldn’t mind another nine months of government work, to get me across the five-year pension finish line, but California will always be home. Then again, the beauty part is a) that I left home a Californian, but I’m coming home an American, and b) that I’m coming home.

JC: What’s next for you -- do you have any projects coming up?


DK: I have a book deal with Bloomsbury for an essay collection called ‘A Raft of Books: How American Literature Saved Our Lives,’ and I’m introducing reissues of the WPA Guides to Los Angeles and San Francisco for the University of California Press. I’m also still culture critic for The Bob Edwards Show on XMSirius, and for Bob Edwards Weekend on public radio stations near you. Plus I told Ron Charles at the Washington Post that I’m available again for book reviewing chores -- specializing in galleys with high resale value -- so I’ll always have the security of freelance literary criticism to fall back on.

-- Carolyn Kellogg