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by Barbara Kingsolver in 2000 and funded entirely by her, it is awarded biennially to the author of a previously unpublished novel of high literary caliber that exemplifies the prize’s founding principles.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].

Current Cycle: 2019

Honoring books published in 2018.

Submissions: June-August 2018
Judges Announced: December 2018
Longlists Announced: December 2018
Shortlists Announced: January 2019
Awards Ceremony: February 2019bellw


Featured Honoree: Lisa Ko, 2016 Winner

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

Lisa Ko

The Leavers by Lisa Ko (Algonquin Books)
Algonquin Ι Indiebound Ι Amazon

Judges: Laila Lalami, Kathy Pories, Brando Skyhorse

From the judges’ citation: One morning Chinese-American immigrant Peilan Gao leaves for work and doesn’t come back. Soon, her son Deming finds himself adopted by a Caucasian family and renamed Daniel Wilkinson, incorporated into a culture nothing like the one he’s known and loved, while puzzling over why his mother might have left him. Following these narrative threads, The Leavers asks whether a child is better served being raised by adoptive parents with English fluency and economic privilege, or with his family and culture of origin, despite having fewer educational and financial resources. A novel that draws links between economic migration and the adoption industry, The Leavers is, as Laila Lalami says, “A rich and sensitive portrait of lives lived across borders, cultures, and languages . . . one of the most engaging, deeply probing, and beautiful books I have read this year.”



Previous Winners

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

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

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

*2006  Hillary Jordan for Mudbound (Algonquin Books)

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

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

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

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

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

2016  Lisa Ko for The Leavers (Algonquin Books)




Submissions for the next awards cycle will be accepted from June 1, 2019 – August 1, 2019.

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 2019 or earlier.

Complete the online Submittable form.