Back in the earlyish-90s, I got a call from Poets & Writers. Essentially, there was no time to dither. Funding of the National Endowment for the Arts was under assault by Jesse Helms and Co. Arts organizations had to fight back. Poets & Writers (I’m now chairman of the board) was among the first to respond.
I was asked to put together a group of writers who would go down to Washington on their own dime – try to educate members of Congress about the Endowment, specifically the literary grant, which went to individuals, not institutions. My group would visit the House of Representatives. (The unlikely but delightful duo, Melanie Griffiths and Wendy Wasserstein, took on the Senate.)
Who volunteered to go? Interestingly, not the authors of literary novels, the sort who frequently apply to the NEA for help. It was mystery writers…not one of whom had ever applied for a grant. Mary Higgins Clark, Walter Mosley, me and the late Ross Thomas; Ross wasn’t well, but he flew in from California anyway.
The anti-NEA folks were portraying arts people as Gomorrah-ites, conniving to put taxpayer dollars into the hands of writers who would mock-God-with-blasphemous-haiku, jeer at the flag, ridicule the nuclear family, and champion anarchy.
Many Democrats were on our side, but there was no point in preaching to the choir. So the Representatives with whom we met were all right-of-center Republicans, opponents of government funding for the arts. They came from all parts of the US, but in my memory, they all sounded like Lindsey Graham.
Since one of our group was a registered Republican, we made sure to stress our bipartisanship. Because the members of Congress we were visiting were champions of the bottom line, the person sheparding us around introduced us not as artists, but as revenue producers: “Together, these four writers have sold…” It was some number we’d hurriedly calculated earlier. I vaguely remember 36 million books worldwide, though it could have been 63 million. To this day I’m not sure if I overestimated the sales of my Bulgarian editions.
We all had sense enough to dress as conservatively as we could bear. But a dress-for-success suit only goes so far. We went armed with facts about the cultural institutions in each Representative’s district that received Endowment funds. Whenever possible, we brought up the names of local writers who’d received individual grants. We made the point that most of these writers were not members of a snooty, East Coast clique, but ordinary people from every state the union – office clerks, waitresses, truck drivers, homemakers. The grant money would allow them to stop working that second job, or pay for a babysitter, or help pay the rent on a room of one’s own.
We used whatever worked. By the third Congressperson, we recognized the fact that some of our books had been made into movies was an attention-grabber. By the fifth Congressperson, one of us would launch into a vignette about being on the set. What did this have to do with NEA’s literature grant? Gornischt. What did it have to do with making us seem accessible, non-boring, and cool folk who at least had been in the vicinity of her red carpet?
Well, Poets & Writers, along with the other authors and arts delegations, had some success against those who wanted to choke us to death with purse strings. The individual literature grant survived. We won that skirmish, but the fight to preserve our culture goes on. If you care enough to come today to hear these two extraordinary writers, then you should care enough to call Congressman Suozzi or whoever your representative is and tell them: I’m a Republican or Democrat or an independent who wants funding for The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.