Smith Henderson (nominated by Hannah Tinti of One Story)

The PEN Emerging Writers Awards were established to promote talented up-and-coming authors whose writing has been featured in distinguished literary journals across the country, but who have yet to publish book-length works.

Thanks to a generous gift from the anonymous donor who sponsors the PEN/W. G. Sebald Award for a Fiction Writer in Mid-Career, PEN will provide prizes to three promising new writers—one fiction writer, one nonfiction writer, and poet—at a crucial early moment in their careers. Each recipient will be awarded $1,660 and honored at PEN’s annual Literary Awards Ceremony.

Candidates for the Emerging Writers Awards are nominated by the editors of approximately 20 to 25 print and online journals, who will submit letters of nomination and writing samples on behalf of promising writers whose work they have published. The list of journals will be selected by PEN’s Awards Committee, in consultation with the donor, to represent a rich and diverse range of literary voices and perspectives, and will be reviewed annually.

2011 Judges

Reif Larsen, David Lehman, Robin Romm

From the Judges’ Citation

“Like the crackling, codified radio frequencies of its title, Smith Henderson’s story ‘Number Stations’ reads like a haunting, echoing warning shot into the night. Ostensibly a portrait of tangled relationships in Bigfork, Montana—of a parolee trying to begin again, of a man trapped by a fatal secret, of a girl who loves him in spite of herself—Henderson’s prose transcends this domestic scrum with its ferociously precise lyricism, the stuttering canter-step of its dialogue, the depth of its damaged, wanting characters. More than anything, though, the reader will be taken by the surprise of the language. From the very first line, we are wowed by Henderson’s choices, particularly the slippery, sleight-of-hand of his diction (‘He gave her a longsuffering grin.’). The fantastical moments in this story, carved so deftly with his fine brushstroke, never lapse into heavy-handed sensationalism—always we get the sense that Henderson knows exactly, exactly what he is doing, and that his uncanny conjurations will later be mined to form the emotional core of something spectacular. Indeed, who else could render an ostrich running through a Montana snowstorm with such soft, subtle hands so that the scene becomes heartbreaking, hopeless, true? This is the kind of story that will wrestle a reader into reading differently, and it most certainly serves as the announcement of a writer who has much to teach us. Smith Henderson, once emergent, has arrived. We should all tune in.”


Elliott Holt (nominated by Joel Whitney of Guernica)