New PEN Award Will Honor Books That Promise ‘Lasting Impact on American Thought’
PEN America, the national arm of the international literary and free speech organization PEN, will unveil a new $75,000 award to recognize a book that “promises a lasting impact on American thought.”
In an interview, PEN Director of Literary Programs Paul Morris held up Claudia Rankine’s 2014 book “Citizen: An American Lyric” as an example of a book that could have won the award had it been available then. The work, which uses images and poetry to describe microaggressions and race dynamics, was well-received and nominated for multiple awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award in both criticism and poetry, winning the latter.
“[It] not only had an impact on the culture, but was transformative in its ability to play with form,” Morris said.
The PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, underwritten by author Jean Stein, will be among the largest yearly literary awards to be given in the United States when it is granted early next year.
While there are other large prizes for both emerging and established writers, such as the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, the Stein award appears to be the largest available for a single book published in the selection year, and is three times the next largest single award to an author that PEN America will provide in 2017.
It will be awarded by a five- to eight-member panel with broad discretion to decide what constitutes a work with the “potential to be the book that had the most impact of the year if we look back in four years, or 10 years,” said Morris.
The book does not necessarily have to have been raved about in reviews to be under consideration. “This is a book that can have been well reviewed […] Or it might have been too ambitious for the current critical climate,” said Morris.
The prize will be given annually for four years starting in 2017, after which Morris said the organization would “reassess its efficacy” and possibly make changes to the process.
He called the prize “the culmination of a four-year project to bring [our] awards into a higher echelon,” noting that the organization’s prizes, grants, and fellowships budget will total $275,000 in 2017, up from $150,000 in 2015.
Stein is the author of three books that draw heavily on oral history, including “Edie: American Girl.” She has also written “West of Eden,” released in February of this year, and “American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy.”
In addition to the book prize, PEN and Stein are also launching the $10,000 Grant for Literary Oral History, which will recognize a nonfiction work that “uses oral history to illuminate an event, individual, place, or movement,” according to the prize criteria.
“It seemed like a good time in American literary culture to give recognition to risk and innovation.” Stein said in a statement.