Last Thursday, the New York City bookstore Housing Works hosted a reading that included: a fable about a book that comes into being as it's read, an essay about Fiona Apple and obsession, a monologue about the nature of truth and theater and a howling wolf, scenes from a novella about natal charts and witchcraft, and a true story of breakfast in a psychiatric ward. The readers were this year's class of Whiting Award winners, 10 exciting, adventurous writers of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama that earn a cash prize ($50,000 across two years). The wide world may not know the writers' work yet, but these writers know themselves.
"Emerging" can be a vague and fraught label for a writer, even for ones with a strong voice and clear vision. "Emerging is a strange word -- like emerging from what? Emerging from a cocoon? Emerging from a cave? I don’t know," said fiction winner Patty Yumi Cottrell, whose first book, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, came out last year. "I definitely feel like I'm beginning."
"What we really want to do is help someone before they've been largely rewarded by the culture because we see this as a moment of opportunity for writers but also some danger," said Courtney Hodell, Director of Literary Programs for the Whiting Foundation, which has been giving out its literary award since 1985. That’s where the cash comes in, which gives the writers a unique kind of freedom, more often associated with awards for established leaders in their fields, like the MacArthur "Genius Grant." "We want to give people room to experiment and to be bold and to continue with their work without having to be so crushed by the expectations of daily life," Hodell said.
The Whiting Foundation solicits one nomination apiece from about 150 industry professionals each year -- editors, teachers, writers, dramaturgs, artistic directors, and booksellers, people who know their field and have a passion for new work. The nominees are whittled down to the winners by a panel of six judges, who are always anonymous -- to each other and to the winners.