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

The PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction is a career-founding prize, which promotes fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships. Established by Barbara Kingsolver in 2000, it is awarded biennially to the author of a previously unpublished novel of high literary caliber that exemplifies the prize’s founding principles.

The winning unpublished novel manuscript is chosen by a panel of three judges, including one editor representing Algonquin Books and two distinguished literary authors. Entries are judged blindly, to avoid any form of bias, and the identities of the authors of the submissions are not known by the judging panel 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, as well as an additional publishing advance. The winning author can expect to work closely with an editor from Algonquin prior to publication, and will receive promotional support from PEN America and Algonquin.

Winners for this award are eligible to receive PEN America’s official winner seal.

Defining Socially Engaged Fiction

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, to question and confront, to work towards betterment.

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 20th-century classics such as The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. More contemporary contributors to this tradition include Margaret Atwood, Jesmyn Ward, Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver, Tommy Orange, Richard Powers, Valeria Luiselli, Rion Amilcar Scott, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and others.

Because of its inherent challenges and discomforts brought to a reader, socially engaged fiction is often undervalued in American letters, while its role and recognition in American culture is only growing. Historically, its advocacy has not fallen within the stated goals of major North American publishers, endowments, or other prizes for the arts. The PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction was conceived to address these deficiencies, with the hope of enlisting more U.S. writers, publishers, and readers to share in this crucial endeavor.

2021 Winner

Jamila Minnicks Gleason, Hydrangeas of New Jessup

It’s 1957. After fleeing the only home she’s ever known and witnessing the murder of her family, Alice Young disappears into New Jessup, Alabama, where the white people live twenty clicks away and never come to this side of the woods. Booker T. Washington himself endorsed this arrangement as a model of his teachings on Negro self-sufficiency, something that Negro and white alike have accepted with pride for generations. As the struggle for civil rights simmers to a boil in the mid-20th century, Alice falls in love with Raymond Campbell, his family, and a town full of people with differing ideas about the shape of social progress. But when Alice’s past threatens, and nerves on both sides of the woods begin to fray, she and her family must come to terms with how to best protect their rights and their freedom.

Hydrangeas of New Jessup functions as socially engaged fiction because it challenges the idea that African Americans believe in a monolithic approach to social justice. This novel questions the benefits and drawbacks of views as relevant today as when Alice and Raymond took their vows. Hydrangeas of New Jessup recognizes and celebrates African American humanity as it weaves questions of progress into the tapestry of the characters’ lives. Because while trauma is part of the lived African American experience, our art must reflect that the community lives, thrives, and has the right to examine important issues from lenses as diverse as the petals on Ms. Catherine’s flowers.

Jamila Minnicks headshot

2021 Finalists

Finalists for the 2021 award were selected by a panel of readers from Apogee Journal. Agents and editors interested in learning more about these projects can email [email protected].

Bix Gabriel, Archives of Amnesia
Wayne Karlin, What Their Fathers Never Told Them
Simona Supekar, In the Land of Perfect Bliss
Frederick McKindra, The Ticket
Lisa Erin Sanchez, The Gift
Richard B. Simon, The Dolphin Ambassador’s Daughter
Anita Gail Jones, Peach Seed Monkey
Keya Mitra, Human Enough
Tanya Pérez-Brennan, The Land of Demons and Dreams
Suzanne Kehm, The Smell of Smoke
Ben Miller (with drawings by Dale Williams), Meanwhile in the Dronx…

Featured Works

History

Previous Winners

2019 Katherine Seligman, At the Edge of the Haight (Algonquin Books)

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.)

Eligibility and Submission Guidelines

Who is Eligible:

  • An unpublished novel manuscript by a writer who has not sold more than 10,000 copies of a previously published book.
  • The submission must be an original, previously unpublished novel manuscript, written by one person in English, and at least 80,000 words in length.
  • The applicant’s submission may not be under consideration by any publisher during the judging period, and the work should not be submitted elsewhere during the review period for this prize.
  • Authors must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
  • Authors will have published at least three pieces of short fiction, poetry, or nonfiction in a literary journal, cultural website, or media outlet, which has undergone editorial review.
  • Individuals who were previously finalists for the PEN/Bellwether Prize cannot submit the same work again for any future offerings of this award, unless the manuscript has undergone significant revisions.

Timeline:

  • Applicants will be notified in early fall if their manuscript is a finalist or is no longer under consideration, at which time they should feel free to submit the work elsewhere for consideration.
  • Approximately 10 finalists for the award will be notified in early fall, and are asked to continue to keep their manuscript under exclusive consideration of the judges until the winner announcement.
  • The winner announcement will be made in early 2021.

How to Submit:

  • As one document, upload a one-page synopsis of the work’s plot, as well as the manuscript. The author’s name should not appear anywhere in the synopsis and manuscript document, to ensure anonymity in the judging process. Any inclusion of the author’s name disqualifies them for the prize.
  • The one-page synopsis of the work’s plot should also include how the work functions as socially engaged fiction.
  • The author’s typed, double-spaced (12-point font), and paginated manuscript (at least 80,000 words in length) should include the title on every page.
  • Separately, upload a résumé or curriculum vitae of three pages maximum. The author’s name and publication history should appear on this document for the Literary Awards team to review.
  • Each submission is $40. Submittable will provide instructions for paying through their website. Should this fee prove a financial hardship for the applicant, they may request a fee waiver via [email protected], no questions asked.

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