Socially engaged fiction, for the purposes of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, may describe categorical human transgressions in a way that compels readers to examine their own prejudices. It may invoke the necessity for economic and social justice for a particular ethnic or social group, or it may explicitly examine movements that have brought positive social change. Or, it may advocate the preservation of nature by describing and defining accountable relationships between people and their environment. The mere description of an injustice, or of the personal predicament of an exploited person, without any clear position of social analysis invoked by the writer, does not in itself constitute socially engaged literature. “Social engagement” describes a moral obligation of individuals to engage with their communities in ways that promote a more respectful coexistence. 

Politically engaged literary fiction has influenced readers and social currents of every age, from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” – which invigorated the American movement to abolish slavery – through such thoughtful 20th Century classics as “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair, “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, George Orwell’s “1984,” “The Book of Daniel” by E.L. Doctorow, and Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” More contemporary contributors to this tradition include Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver, Dave Eggers, and Richard Powers, to name only a few.

Nevertheless, the tradition of socially engaged fiction is less securely established in American letters than in much of the rest of the world. Its advocacy does not fall within the stated goals of any major North American publisher, endowment, or other prize for the arts. The Award was conceived to address this deficiency, with the hope of enlisting more U.S. writers, publishers and readers to share in this crucial endeavor.