Last year, when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, many purists were perplexed, if not outraged. Dylan wasn't a novelist, they (rightfully) claimed, and his nomination was a slap in the face to more deserving American authors like Philip Roth and Don DeLillo.
Fortunately, I won't go much deeper into the relative merits of Dylan's honor, except to state the obvious. By giving the prize to a musician, the Nobel committee expanded the definition of "literature," and with it, the nominee pool for the award. It was a savvy PR move, and some other grantmakers have been thinking along the same lines.
The PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award is typically given annually to a "critically acclaimed writer whose body of work helps us understand and interpret the human condition." While this description casts a broad thematic net, the prize has mostly gone to novelists, including Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison—until now. In a Dylanesque twist, this year's award went to Stephen Sondheim, making him the first composer-lyricist to win it.
“Stephen Sondheim has really given voice to complex aspects of the human spirit: to nuance, to psychology, to inner voices,” said Andrew Solomon, president of PEN America. His work, which includes West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, and Company, "points to the significance of living a moral life, and that’s never felt more urgent than right now.”
While PEN America's decision to give the award to Sondheim may not trigger the same kind of existential hand-wringing we saw with the Nobel committee's decision, it's nonetheless good for the brand. It gets people talking. This is probably no accident. As previously noted, awarding a host of literary prizes "is one way that PEN America generates heat and keeps itself so relevant." Thinking outside the recipient box is certainly one way for an organization to differentiate itself in an increasingly cluttered philanthropy landscape.
And PEN America's announcement is doubly impactful as the organization has seen a huge surge in donations since Trump's election, effectively positioning itself as a free speech bulwark against a president with a well-documented penchant for "law and order" and a desire to eliminate federal arts funding.
Again, PEN America's approach—low risk, high reward—is a savvy one, and I imagine other grantmakers are taking notice.