The Whiting Awards Choose 10 Up-and-Coming Writers Who Don’t Shy Away From The Current Moment

When the Whiting Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the arts, hands out their annual awards of $ 50,000 each to 10 up-and-coming writers, they like to operate with an air of mystery, using a secret judging panel and notifying the winners of the life-changing prize through a surprise phone call. Like most pieces of everyday magic, it has been complicated by the inconveniences of modern life. Winners increasingly balk at calls from an unknown number, leading to a drawn-out notification process sometimes involving cryptic emails. But for poet Claire Schwartz, one of this year’s awardees, her proclivity for answering spam calls came in handy.

“It’s like a joke with my friends — I always pick up random numbers because I think, Maybe something will happen. But it’s always someone trying to steal my identity, ”she said in an interview this week. A few months ago, she picked up the phone and on the other side, she heard the voice of Courtney Hodell, the award’s program director, informing her that she won the prize devoted to identifying promising writers early in their careers. “I was so shocked, and I think I said so.”

In addition to her day job as the culture editor at Jewish CurrentsSchwartz is preparing to release her debut collection of poems, Civil Service, this summer, and she said it represented the culmination of about a decade of work. When giving her the award, the judges called her work “probing, lucid, and aphoristic and also poignantly humane.”

The Whiting Award is known for picking future literary stars long before their time in the spotlight, and their reputation for clairvoyance has only grown since the 2012 selection of Danai Gurira, a playwright and actor who went on to major roles in The Walking Dead spirit Black Panther. This week, the 2022 winners were inducted into an illustrious club composed of writers who have defined the last 40 years in American letters, including 1988 winner Jonathan Franzen, 2000 winner Colson Whitehead, 1987 winners Deborah Eisenberg and David Foster Wallace, 1992 winner Suzan-Lori Parks, and 1990 winner Tony Kushner.

At a Wednesday ceremony at the New York Historical Society, Schwartz and the nine other recipients of the prize gathered to bask in the feeling that something big was happening. As an award oriented toward the future of literature, the days of events surrounding the announcement of the awards are usually filled with an enthusiasm and joy that’s a contrast from what is happening in the world at large. Perhaps that’s why, as author and MacArthur genius grant recipient Maggie Nelson pointed out in her keynote address, speeches from previous ceremonies often seemed to be pretty grim, discussing unpleasant current events.

In response, she offered a message of measured optimism. “You know about the state of the world and what words can do in it,” Nelson said, addressing the winners. “It’s not that I think things are going to get better, I just think that it’s all worth it.”

Though the selection committee remains a secret after the process ends, the awards are given out alongside an effusive bit of praise written by the judges, but delivered by the keynote speaker. Every year a few themes emerge from their praise and the winners’ biographies, and many of 2022’s writers address the world’s issues directly in their work. Winner Megha Majumdar, whose 2021 debut novel, A Burning, reached The New York Times best-sellers list, was praised for her ability to make “complex political scenarios real by showing how ordinary people become enmeshed in forces larger than themselves,” while Claire Boyles, whose short-story collection was long-listed for the PEN / Robert Bingham Award, was praised for her works’ “insistence that we recognize how bound together we are.” Poet Ina Cariño fits trenchant observations about cultural memory into poems that the judges described as “placing the reader in a fever dream of observation and sensation.”

Hodell was unable to attend this year, which perhaps preserved a little bit of mystery for the winners, but in a statement she praised their writing. “As the world opens up, these brilliant writers open up our world,” she said. “From fresh cultural criticism, to poems of place and personhood and appetite, to fiction that brings surreal wit to compassionate portraits, their work is the spring thaw of the mind.”

For the last two years, coronavirus meant that the ceremony was virtual, but the return to an in-person ceremony meant the return of an open-bar reception in the eclectic museums’ breezy lobby. A collection of literary names were on hand to offer congratulations, including Anna Quindlen, The New Yorker‘s James Wood, Lisa Lucas of Pantheon Books, Pulitzer Prize – winning writer (and 2016 Whiting recipient) Mitchell S. Jackson.

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