Literary Writers Get Peanuts from Philanthropy. With a New Prize, South Arts Is Doing What It Can


Aspiring writers clicking through Esquire magazine’s website should probably skip over author Nicole Chung’s reflections on her career choice and go straight to “21 Aviator Sunglasses That Look Great on Everyone.”

In a piece titled “The Unbearable Costs of Becoming a Writer,” Chung took an honest look at her decision to voluntarily subject herself to years of long hours, low pay and inconsistent work. “Though some of the risks I’ve taken have paid off, there are times when I wonder about the associated cost to my family, and whether it was too steep,” wrote Chung, whose new memoir, “A Living Remedy,” has garnered accolades from the New York Times, NPR and other outlets.

Chung’s piece is a cautionary tale for writers attempting to navigate a tumultuous media landscape. “Opportunities remain tenuous for writers,” said Emmitt Stevenson, director of arts engagement at South Arts, the Atlanta-based regional arts funder. “Media outlets such as newspapers, magazines and networks continue downsizing if not completely shuttering. In addition, there is a national outcry on diminishing access to the written word in books. The challenge placed upon writers is doing the work that is needed and sustaining themselves through that commitment.”

On May 22, South Arts announced the inaugural Southern Prize and State Fellowship for Literary Arts to sustain writers in this fraught environment. Modeled after its Southern Prize and State Fellowships for Visual Arts, the program will award fiction writers with prizes totaling $80,000 each year. While the current cycle’s focus is fiction, future awards will center a range of genres including drama and playwriting, poetry, creative nonfiction and young adult fiction. All told, the fellowship is a welcome infusion for the region's writers, who, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, earned 50% less in wages compared to their peers in the Northeast and the West.

But the fellowship is much more than a paycheck. It also seeks to highlight writers’ role in the South’s rich and complex cultural heritage. “Writers are central to telling stories and helping the world understand the people and places that make the South what it is,” Stevenson said via email. “South Arts recognizes that, while writers are important, there are few opportunities for recognition, support and exposure. The prize was created to bridge the gap.”

Exporting lessons from a visual arts fellowship

Created in 1975 and supported by the National Endowment for the Arts along with private funders like the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, South Arts seeks to advance “Southern vitality through the arts” by providing a broad array of grants to performing arts organizations and artists in nine states.

In June 2021, South Arts received an unrestricted gift from MacKenzie Scott. Five months later, it announced the launch of Southern Cultural Treasures, a $6 million, four-year initiative backing arts and cultural organizations led by and serving people of color throughout the Southeast. The Ford Foundation is supporting the project with a $3 million matching gift.

At the time, I spoke to South Arts’ Vice President of Programming Joy Young about the launch, and she told me that she and her team were in the formative stages of developing a literary arts program that “aims toward lifting the unique sense of place that is the South, allowing us to bring to the forefront important new writers who live, work and can write about our region.”

For its new literary awards, South Arts drew on takeaways from its Southern Prize and State Fellowships for Visual Arts, in which a national jury awards a $5,000 fellowship to one artist in each of nine states whose work “reflects the best of the visual arts in the South.”

The visual arts program “provided a humbling perspective on the vastness and depth of artistic excellence present throughout the region,” Stevenson said. Recognizing the relatively limited opportunities available to writers across the region, South Arts sought “to make an investment in writers and the important role they play in animating the interactions of the people and places in the South.”

Scant support for writers

South Arts announced the Southern Prize and State Fellowships for Literary Arts at a time when the literary arts rank at the bottom of arts funders’ priority list.

In an analysis of Candid data spanning 2014 to 2018 for our white paper on the state of giving for writing and literature, we found that donors gave $418 million to writing and literature programs in the United States, nearly 15 times less than what they gave to the visual arts ($6.3 billion) and 10 times less than giving for music ($4 billion) during the same time. Giving for the literary arts also lags significantly behind theater ($2.4 billion) and dance ($1 billion).

As discussed in our white paper, several factors may explain this disparity, the most notable of which is many grantmakers’ apparent belief that literature is more “commercially viable” than fields like dance or theater, and thus in need of less support. 

Setting aside the obvious fact that “commercial viable” is a relative concept — does it mean a writer can quit her day job? One of her day jobs? — funders can forget that writing isn’t an isolated exercise where an author emerges from their home office as a fully formed and “commercially viable” wordsmith. Writers need to be cultivated, and in the literary arts space, that job often falls on a relatively tiny number of funders. “There are very few writers who go on to have prominent careers who have not been nurtured along the way by smaller grants and prizes and by residencies,” said Daniel Reid, executive director of the Whiting Foundation, in our white paper.

Much like their peers in theater and dance, literature funders have the flexibility to provide writers with the requisite “risk capital” to produce artistically challenging works, even if it means they won’t move as many units as, say, Prince Harry’s memoir “Spare.” Writers understand this. In fact, we’ve found that many high-profile supporters of literature are themselves writers who benefited from the nonprofit literary infrastructure by receiving grants or publishing their work in nonprofit journals before attaining financial success.

Looking ahead, it’s likely that writers will be increasingly reliant on philanthropy as the commercial publishing industry continues to consolidate, narrowing the number of titles and the types of books that are published commercially. Whether funders ramp up their support for writers as that happens remains an open question.

More funding to follow

Meanwhile, South Arts is doing what it can. Of the annual total of $80,000 it’ll give out through these new awards, each of nine State Fellows (one per state) will receive $5,000, and the Southern Prize for Literary Arts winner and finalist will receive an additional $25,000 and $10,000, respectively. The winner and finalist will also participate in a two-week residency at the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences in rural Georgia, about 120 miles north of Atlanta.

“We are taking a deep dive to identify artistic excellence amongst writers at all levels, whether emerging or writers with decades of experience,” Stevenson said. “We are interested in published and unpublished writers who demonstrate artistic excellence and innovation in approach.”

The application portal opened on May 22 and will close on August 4, 2023, with the projected award announcements expected by November 2023. A national jury will select the cohort of nine fellows through a two-tiered selection process. A separately appointed national jury will select the Southern Prize winner and finalist. Click here for more information, including eligibility criteria. 

Looking ahead, Stevenson stressed that the prize is a preamble to South Arts’ larger investment in the literary arts. “In the coming years, we are looking forward to additional opportunities for the field, such as project-based grants as well as convenings,” he said. “These are still in the planning phase, but we are excited to continue working on avenues of support.”