Aspen Words launches literary prize
September 29, 2016
Aspen Words made a splash in the publishing world Wednesday, announcing a new literary prize for influential works of fiction with a social impact.
The inaugural $35,000 award will be conferred on the author of a novel or short story collection published in English in the U.S. in 2017. Submissions will open in February. The first winner will be announced in spring 2018.
The $35,000 attached to the prize puts the Aspen Words Literary Prize on the richer end of the American publishing award spectrum. The Pulitzer and the National Book Award, for example, each give $10,000. An endowed prize funded by an anonymous individual, it will be awarded annually in perpetuity.
"We're creating a conversation that's slightly different from other prizes," said Aspen Words Executive Director Adrienne Brodeur. "It's not just, 'What's excellent?' It's 'What's excellent that's also purposeful?' 'What do we need to be thinking about?'"
The prize aims to recognize novels or short story collections that address issues such as violence, inequality, gender, the environment, immigration, religion and race.
Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacsion called the prize "an innovative application of the Institute's mission to bring people together around the vital issues of our time."
Founded in 1976 as the Aspen Writers' Foundation, the literary noprofit merged with the Institute in 2009. Aspen Words' public programs, and its identity as a community arts organization, have remained largely siloed from the Institute since then. This high-profile prize represents a dovetailing of the creative mission of Aspen Words with the broader scope of the Institute.
"I think this connects us with the Institute's goals and puts us on a national and international stage," Brodeur said.
Brodeur said the prize aims to recognize works of fiction that illuminate social issues as classics like "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "The Handmaid's Tale" did in their time. She pointed to recent acclaimed novels like Yaa Gyasi's "Homegoing" and Colson Whitehead's "The Underground Railroad" as exemplary of the kinds of works of fiction that jurors would likely consider in the years to come.
"Literature is one of the most powerful ways to expand our perspectives and find common ground," Institute vice president of policy and public programs Elliot Gerson said in the announcement.
The five-member jury for the inaugural prize is comprised of Yale University professor and Aspen Institute trustee Stephen Carter, librarian and Aspen resident Jessica Fullerton, "Redeployment" author and Marine Corps veteran Phil Klay, "The Social Life of DNA" author and Columbia University Dean Alondra Nelson, and "Family Life" author Akhil Sharma.
The jury will most likely rotate annually, Brodeur said. It was important to Aspen Words and the Institute, she said, that the jury include a stakeholder from the Institute (Carter) and from Aspen Words (Fullerton, an active participant in its programs), a scholar (Nelson) and fiction writers whose work addresses social issues (Klay and Sharma).
"You're simultaneously trying to highlight a work of fiction with enduring literary value and one that is shining a light on an important social issue," Brodeur said of the criteria on which the judges will choose finalists and winners. "In the end, it's an extremely subjective decision. … But every one of these people understands exactly what we're trying to do here."
A group of finalists and a winner will be recognized at a ceremony in New York City in spring 2018. The winner will then be the guest of honor at the Aspen Words Summer Benefit, held annually in June. Brodeur said Aspen Words is still working on the possibility of additional Aspen-based benefits of the prize, such as a residency here.
The organization previously gave an award called the Aspen Prize for Literature for several years at its Aspen Summer Words festival. That prize did not include a monetary award and was decided without a formal selection process. It was discontinued in 2013.