A quick perusal of the list of awards the American Academy of Arts and Letters bestows and one realizes they give recognition for more achievement than one may have realized. Currently they list 31 awards ranging from $5,000 to $75,000 with distinguished names like E.M. Forster, Thorton Wilder, and John Updike attached to each prize. They recognize over 50 composers, artists, architects, and writers each year, but these awards aren't for dabblers or dilettantes. After all, the Academy has a reputation to uphold.
The American Academy of Arts and Letters is a rarefied society. Its membership is composed of 250 architects, composers, artists, and writers, and each member is elected for life. New candidates can only be nominated by existing members. It's a fairly closed circle, but definitely a good gig if you can get it, and the honors they grant are considered among the highest in the field.
Each award is decided upon by a committee made up of Academy members in the respective field, and the thing about these awards is that there's no real submission process. You're either nominated or not. It's like the Oscars. These are awards given by your ostensible peers. But that doesn't mean you already have to be famous to be nominated.
Awards like the $10,000 Metcalf Award, the $10,000 Rosenthal Family Foundation Award, and the $5,000 Sue Kaufman Prize are all given to first time novelists or beginning writers. Others, like the revered $20,000 John Updike Award, are given to mid-career writers. You don't have to be a New York Times bestselling author, but you do need to know people. And that's where the schmoozing comes in.
Without sounding too crass, writing is much like any other field in that it's a lot about who you know. But you don't have to have grown up with someone or be a family friend, or even necessarily gone to school with someone to become a colleague. Despite the seemingly insular world of organizations like the Academy of Arts and Letters, it's not always as closed as it may seem. Going to readings, panel discussions, book fairs, and other author events and connecting with your peers can often be very effective. Everyone has to start somewhere.
Many, if not all, of the authors who are members of the Academy of Arts and Letters give regular readings and attend book events all over the country. Sometimes these events can be quite gregarious affairs. At the very least it would benefit any writer to go through the list and make note of who is on it.
It can be a small world sometimes and if you expect to be in line for any of the larger awards you have to make people aware of who you are. It's not always about toiling away in your study and writing a great book. A little elbow rubbing can go a long way. Especially when it comes to institutions like the American Academy of Arts and Letters.