Forget the Money. These Literary Prizes Are All About the Prestige

A little over a year ago, we noted that receiving a PEN America honor can be more valuable than the amount of the award itself. That's because PEN America, the U.S. branch of the world’s oldest international literary and human rights organization, is one of the largest and most respected literary organizations in the country. It commands high respect from heavyweight writers, any number of whom serve on its board at a given time. The current board president is Andrew Solomon, the bestselling author who has piled up a huge number of literary prizes over the years. 

Speaking of prizes, giving them out is one way that PEN America generates heat and keeps itself so relevant. (Another way is wading into hot-button issues like the FBI's fight with Apple over unlocking an iPhone.) Take the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, for example. Past winners include Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo,  E. L. Doctorow, and Louise Erdrich. It's a pretty big deal. The prize money is $25,000—not chump change, of course, but relatively speaking, on the lower end of the prize money spectrum across the arts sector. (To put it in context, the Restless Award provides $45,000 to a playwright in recognition of a new play.)

But again, PEN America doesn't exist to make writers millionaires, and we imagine that probably suits Toni Morrison just fine. Ms. Morrison, who also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Beloved, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, was recently selected by a three-person panel as the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. 

Don't fret, though, superstars like Morrison don't hog all the prizes from PEN America, which does a good job of showing love to less well-known writers. The organization also recently announced winners of other awards, some of whom include:

The PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, Founded by Barbara Kingsolver ($25,000) went to Lisa Ko for The Leavers. The award goes to an author of an unpublished novel that addresses issues of social justice. The prize also includes a publishing contract with Algonquin Books.

PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Awards ($7,500 and $2,500). PEN presents three awards which honor a Master American Dramatist, American Playwright in Mid-Career, and Emerging American Playwright. This year's winners were Lynn Nottage, Young Jean Lee, and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, respectively.

The PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing ($5,000) went to Scott Ellsworth and his The Secret Game: A Wartime Story of Courage, Change, and Basketball's Lost Triumph. This award honors a nonfiction book on the subject of sports published in 2015.

The PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing ($5,000), given to  a writer whose body of work represents an exceptional contribution to the field, went to John Schulian.

The PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography ($5,000), for a distinguished biography published in 2015, went to Nancy Princenthal and her Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art.

Click here for a full list of winners.