PEN America Literary Awards PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction

The Bellwether Prize was created to promote fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships. Established by Barbara Kingsolver in 2000 and funded entirely by her, it is awarded biennially to the author of a previously unpublished novel of high literary caliber that exemplifies the prize’s founding principles. The winning novel is chosen by a panel of three judges: one editor representing the participating publisher, Algonquin, and two distinguished literary authors selected by PEN’s Literary Awards Committee in consultation with Barbara Kingsolver. Entries are judged blindly, to avoid any form of bias; the identities of the authors of the submissions are not known by any judge until after the decision is finalized. The author of the winning manuscript is awarded a prize of $25,000 and a publishing contract with Algonquin Books (and an advance).

All winners and finalists for this award are eligible to receive PEN America’s official winner or finalist seal. If you are a publisher of a shortlisted or winning book for this award and are interested in obtaining PEN’s award seal, please write to [email protected].


Katherine Seligman, 2018 Winner

If You Knew by Katherine Seligman (Algonquin Books)

Judges: Hillary Jordan, Barbara Kingsolver, Kathy Pories

From the judges’ citation: Maddy Donaldo, homeless at 18, has made a family of sorts in the dangerous spaces of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. She knows who to trust, where to eat, when to move locations, and how to take care of her dog. It’s the best definition of home she has. But when she unwittingly witnesses the murder of a young homeless boy and is seen by the perpetrator, her relatively stable life is upended. Suddenly, everyone from the police to the dead boys’ parents want to talk to Maddy about what she saw. As the adults pressure her to give up her secrets and reunite with her own family before she meets a similar fate, Maddy must decide whether she wants to stay lost or be found. Against the backdrop of a radically changing San Francisco, a city which embraces a booming tech economy while struggling to maintain its culture of tolerance, If You Knew follows the lives of those who have no good place to go. As judge Hillary Jordan says, “This book pulled me deep into a world I knew little about, bringing the struggles of its young, homeless inhabitants—the kind of people we avoid eye contact with on the street—to vivid, poignant life. The novel demands that you take a close look. If you knew, could you still ignore, fear or condemn them? And knowing, how can you ever forget?”



Previous Winners

2016 Lisa Ko, The Leavers (Algonquin Books)

2014 Ron Childress, And West Is West (Algonquin Books)

2012 Susan Nussbaum, Good Kings Bad Kings (Algonquin Books)

2010* Naomi Benaron, Running the Rift (Algonquin Books)

2008* Heidi W. Durrow, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (Algonquin Books)

2006* Hillary Jordan, Mudbound (Algonquin Books)

2004* Marjorie Kowalski Cole, Correcting the Landscape (HarperCollins)

2002* Gayle Brandeis, The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins)

2000* Donna Gershten, Kissing the Virgin’s Mouth (HarperCollins)

*(Prior to 2012, the Bellwether Prize was administered independently from the PEN Literary Awards.)


Featured Works




Submissions for the next awards cycle will be accepted from June 1, 2020 – August 15, 2020.

Who is Eligible


  • An unpublished novel manuscript by a writer, who has not sold more than 10,000 copies of a published book. Previous publication of short stories and essays encouraged.
  • The submission must be an original, previously unpublished novel, written by one person, in English, at least 80,000 words in length.
  • The applicant’s submission may not be under consideration by any publisher during the judging period, and if the applicant has a literary agent, the applicant is encouraged to inform them that the work should not be submitted elsewhere during the review period for this prize. Applicants will be notified immediately if their manuscript is no longer under consideration  at which time they should feel free to submit the work elsewhere for consideration.
  • Eligible authors must be U.S. citizens.
  • If you submit a book for this award, you may not submit it for any additional PEN America awards. Please note that the PEN/Faulkner is not considered a PEN America award.

NOT eligible:

  • Individuals who were previously finalists for the PEN/Bellwether Prize cannot submit the same work again for any future offerings of this award.
How to Submit

The online application form requires the following:

  • Your typed, double-spaced (11 or 12 point font), and paginated manuscript (at least 80,000 words in length) with title appearing on every page (your name should not appear anywhere on the pages to ensure anonymity for the judging process)
  • A one-page synopsis of the work’s plot which also explains how it addresses a social issue (please do not include your name on this page). How to define socially engaged fiction
  • Résumé or curriculum vitae (five pages maximum)
  • A $25 submission fee. Submittable will provide instructions for paying through their website or through PayPal. PEN will not be accepting checks, money orders, or cash as a means of payment. Early application is strongly advised.
  • Each applicant will receive information regarding the status of their application in February 2021 or earlier.

Complete the online Submittable form.