The Phone Call of a Lifetime: Windam-Campbell Prizes Announces Nine Recipients

In what seems like only a few days ago, we passed along news that Toni Morrison led this year's roster of PEN Literary Award winners. Morrison was named the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction and netted $25,000 in the process — not chump change, we noted, but relatively speaking, on the lower end of the prize money spectrum across the arts sector.

It's all rather ironic, because soon after stumbling upon Morrison's prize, we came upon news that the Windam-Campbell Prize announced its annual list of nine winning authors and playwrights. Their payday? A cool $150,000 a piece. That's what one would call the opposite of chump change.

Administered by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University, the Windham-Campbell Prizes, which were first issued in 2013, recognize writers from any country who write in English. Previous winners have included the late James Salter, Naomi Wallace, and Teju Cole. The endowment for the prizes comes from the estate of the writer Donald Windham, who died in 2010, and his partner, Sandy M. Campbell. Mr. Campbell, who died in 1988, was the publisher of the first editions of many of Mr. Windham’s books.

In a way, the prize reminds us of those Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes commercials in which an unsuspecting suburban housewife opens her front door to find a camera crew, some guy in a suit, lots of balloons, and an enormous check. That's because the Windham-Campbell Prizes have no submission process, and more tellingly, writers are judged anonymously and are unaware that they are in the running. And so when winners get the "phone call of a lifetime" (to quote the Windam-Campbell folks) from director Michael Kelleher, most are "genuinely surprised," or in the case of 2016 recipient Hilton Als, a theater critic for The New Yorker, "gobsmacked."

The winners hail from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, India, and Ireland, and were chosen in three categories: fiction, nonfiction, and drama. In 2017, the prizes will expand to include poetry.

So without further ado, here are this year's recipients. In drama: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (U.S.), Hannah Moscovitch (Canada), and Abbie Spallen (Ireland); in fiction, Tessa Hadley (United Kingdom),C. E. Morgan (United States), and Jerry Pinto (India); and in nonfiction, Hilton Als (U.S.), Stanley Crouch (U.S.), and Helen Garner (Australia).  

Prize recipients will gather at Yale in September for an international literary festival celebrating their work. Events are free and open to the public. No word if they'll be inundated by hundreds of balloons.