Ta-Nehisi Coates and other authors who landed MacArthur ‘genius’ grants: What made them stand out

New literary MacArthur "genius grant" recipients: Ben Lerner, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ellen Bryant Voight.

New literary MacArthur “genius grant” recipients: Ben Lerner, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ellen Bryant Voight.

(John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Of the 24 MacArthur “genius grant” fellowship recipients named Tuesday, three are primarily authors.

The best known is Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer at the Atlantic whose 2015 book “Between the World and Me” crystallized and personalized the contemporary conversations about race in America. The book, which has topped the Los Angeles Times bestseller list, is on the longlist for the National Book Award in nonfiction.

Coates, Rebecca Carroll wrote in our review, “has become the most sought-after public intellectual on the issue of race in America, with good reason. ‘Between the World and Me,’ rushed to print (its original publication date was set for September) in the wake of the Charleston massacre, the multiple fatal shootings of black men by police in just the last year and the founding of the Black Lives Matter movement, is at once a magnification and a distillation of our existence as black people in a country we were not meant to survive. It is a straight tribute to our strength, endurance and grace. ... While it is clear that Coates has focused on the black male, he has also written a book that speaks resolutely and vividly to all of black America.”

In addition to Coates, novelist, poet and critic Ben Lerner and poet and teacher Ellen Bryant Voigt have been named MacArthur Fellows.


Lerner, 36, is widely regarded as one of his generation’s most intriguing writers. He’s the author of the novels “Leaving the Atocha Station” and “10:04,” both of which play with the idea of a narrator, Ben, whose life mirrors some aspects of Lerner’s own. He’s the author of three poetry collections, including “Angle of Yaw,” which critic Craig Morgan Teicher called “highly ambitious,” describing its best poems as “entertaining, sharp, disturbing, and excellent.” Lerner, the co-founder of the influential (now-defunct) poetry journal No, now teaches at Brooklyn College and has a forthcoming monograph, “The Hatred of Poetry.”

At 72, Voigt is the eldest of the 2015 class of Fellows. She is has published eight poetry collections, beginning with “Claiming Kin” in 1976 and, most recently, “Headwaters” in 2013. Voigt, who earned an MFA at the Iowa Writers Workshop, founded the first low-residency creative writing MFA program in 1976 -- originally based at Goddard College, it is now at the Warren Wilson School. Voigt served as the Vermont State Poet for four years, followed by a six-year stint as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and has written two books about the writer’s craft.

Each of the grantees will be awarded $625,000 over five years.

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