Vanessa Veselka, Zazen

The PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize honors an exceptionally talented fiction writer whose debut work—a novel or collection of short stories—represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise. The winner receives a cash award of $25,000, a stipend intended to permit a significant degree of leisure in which to pursue a second work of literary fiction. The winner is also encouraged to become an active participant in the PEN community and its programs.

2012 Judges

Lauren Groff, Dinaw Mengestu, and Nami Mun

From The Judges’ Citation

“When practicing zazen, the disposition of our mind should be to see without being marred by what we see. This definition stands in stark contrast to the experience of reading Vanessa Veselka’s keen dystopian novel Zazen: we can’t help but be injured and destabilized. We can’t help but find the contents at once disturbing and funny, explosive and muted, encyclopedic, intimate, and painfully honest. On top of all this, Veselka has thrown herself into every single sentence of this lyrical, incisive, nervy book, turning even the most nightmarish scenes and satirical dialogue into effortless beauty. An ambitious encapsulation of our modern times, Zazen tackles counter-culture hipsters, geology, Buddhism, consumerism, terrorism, veganism, family drama, and, above all, love. In doing so, Zazen brings to the foreground the most fragile aspects of living the 21st century life, and how, in the end, we as a society can become the very thing we fear.”


Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station

From The Judges Citation

“In the first few pages of Ben Lerner’s sharp and meticulous debut novel, Leaving The Atocha Station, the narrator stands before a painting in the Prado under the influence of hash and caffeine, longing to be emotionally changed by the art before him. He says, “Insofar as I was interested in the arts, I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf; the closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.” This line perfectly delineates the contours of Lerner’s book, replicating in miniature its humor, intelligence, and the oddly circular anxieties that Lerner sets out to explore. We found Leaving The Atocha Station to be one of the most exciting and hilarious examinations of the liminal space between languages, cultures, and personal identities that we have ever read.”

Previous Winners

Carolyn Cooke, Matthew Klam, Manil Suri, Jonathan Safran Foer, Monique Truong, Will Heinrich, Christopher Coake, Janna Levin, Dalia Sofer, Donald Ray Pollock, Paul Harding, Danielle Evans, and Susanna Daniel.