Congratulations to Seattle poet Storme Webber for winning a Frye Art Museum | Artist Trust Consortium 2015 James W. Ray Award. That $15,000 prize will undoubtedly go toward the creation of some exciting new writing that Webber will share in one of her many readings around town. That’s exactly what an award like this is for; it provides income to pillars of the community who work in fields (like, say, poetry) that don’t pay very well.
It should be noted that I was a nominator for this year’s James W. Ray Award. Absolutely none of the people I nominated won. (Though I think Storme Webber is a great choice!) No hard feelings there; that's the way this nomination game works.
UW professor David Shields was the big winner of the James W. Ray Award this year. He won $50,000, which the awards press release indicates is “intended to free artists to advance their creative work.”
I’d just like to take this opportunity to send a plea to Artist Trust and the Frye Art Museum and anyone who may be reading this who is in an organization that offers awards to writers: Stop giving David Shields money. Please.
Look: David Shields is doing just fine. In one of his most recent books, I Think You Are Totally Wrong: A Quarrel — the man publishes so many books it’s hard to tell exactly where Wrong falls chronologically on the Shields spectrum of published work — he brags about making $200,000 a year as the Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the UW, and through his other royalties and speaking engagements.
How much freer does David Shields need to be? $50,000 could entirely fund a pair of young, poor writers for a year. It could have meant an entire year of focus for a Seattle-area writer, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to quit a terrible job and make a living as a writer, as a member of the literary community. What’s David Shields going to use it on? More David Shields bullshit, probably.
Do I believe that money should be the only criteria for giving a writer work? Absolutely not. And this is not just a matter of money. It's also about bandwidth. If a writer puts out five books in the span of a year and a half, as Shields has just done, they probably do not need an award specifically to “free” them and “advance their creative work.” David Shields’s creative work is “advanced” enough already. He is plenty “free.” He has all the resources of the UW at his disposal. He’s got famous friends. He was in the zeitgeist with both the terrible J.D. Salinger biography that he cowrote and the awful J.D. Salinger biography that featured him as a talking head. (Shields seemed to think the fact that Salinger had one testicle was the key to understanding Salinger’s work. His writing on the subject was exactly as stupid as it sounds.) He was in a documentary made by James fucking Franco about Wrong. He is the exact opposite of a struggling artist. Should we penalize him for his success? Absolutely not. But we should not worry about "freeing" him, either, or "advancing" his work. He's doing just fine, thanks.
Maybe you like David Shields. This is fine. I, personally, have not loved one of his books since Black Planet. I think most of his work is prone to pretentious twaddle and weak academic attempts at bomb-throwing. You may like it, and that’s okay. But I hope you can agree with me that David Shields, with his two documentaries and five books produced in the last couple years, takes up enough space already. He does not need to hoover up any more of the tragically limited resources available to writers in this town. You can like his work, you can advocate for his work, you can encourage his work.
But for Christ’s sake, stop funding him. Give the money to someone who actually needs it. Please. I could recommend a couple dozen Seattle writers off the top of my head who would make better use of the money. Give me 24 hours and I believe I could come up with — and I am not exaggerating, here — over 100 more deserving writers. In this time when arts nonprofits are suffering, let's at the bare minimum all agree to save the freedom and advancement for those who really need it.