Talent Hunt: A Foundation's Long Running Search for Emerging Writers

Most successful writers can look back and identify a distinct inflection point when their careers turned a corner and inexorably headed in a positive direction.

Sometimes this transition involved a kind of creative epiphany or a chance encounter with an editor at a cocktail party (because as we all know, editors love cocktail parties). Other times, however, this inflection point is synonymous with money, or more specifically, an "infusion of much-needed cash."

The idea that writers need money, and with it, "breathing room" (to quote the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award) to take their work to the next level lies at the heart of the Whiting Awards. Since 1985, the awards, at $50,000 each, recognize the accomplishments and the promise of great work to come from 10 emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama. Check out this year's round of winners here

In a sense, the awards resemble other prizes that provide a writer's most valuable resource: time. "These awards are among the few that are large enough to give the gift of time as writers measure it, which is in very large chunks," said writer and 1995 Whiting Award keynote speaker Frances Fitzgerald.

Yet on the other hand, the awards, by their very nature, are predicated on the concept of making a calculated bet. Winning writers aren't "established" in a traditional sense. Many don't have an extensive bodies of work. So the awards undertake "a very difficult task," to quote 1989 keynote speaker Elizabeth Hardwich, "which is of discovering talent and promise in beginning writers. This is much more anxious-making than acknowledging what others have discovered."

Needless to say, their track record is impressive. Whiting winners have won many prestigious awards and fellowships including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Obie Award, and MacArthur, Guggenheim, and Lannan fellowships. 

What's more, the awards redefine the concept of literary promise. As we noted in a previous post on the awards, as baby boomers retire, they're dusting off those oft-delayed literary pursuits. "Emerging artists" can be well into their sixth decades.

So how can writers on the cusp get on Whiting's radar? Simple. Hit the cocktail party circuit.

The foundation does not accept applications or unsolicited nominations; instead, it invites its pool of anonymous nominators, which includes writers, professors, editors, agents, critics, booksellers, and artistic directors of theaters to propose candidates. And just like the Windam-Campbell Prize, the Whiting Foundations asks its nominators not to reveal to their candidates that they are under consideration to avoid any "potential anxiety." (There's that word again!)

Winners are chosen by a selection committee, a small group of recognized writers, literary scholars, and editors appointed every year by the foundation.