The Whiting Foundation has announced its 35th annual Whiting Award winners.
Those winners are:
- Genevieve Sly Crane, author of Sorority. The judges called Crane's debut “an unflinching examination of the kinds of cruelty women perpetrate against another and against themselves,” with “clear-eyed, razor-sharp sentences...[and] scenes [that] are taut, sliced through with dark humor, and dialogue that crackles with electricity.”
- Andrea Lawlor, author of Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl. The judges called Lawlor's writing “mythic and gritty, lyric and witty, brazenly dirty and teeming with life,” and her debut novel “at once a bacchanalian celebration of outlaw living and an old-fashioned bildungsroman, following its seductive, shape-shifting antihero at a gallop on the path to self-discovery.”
- Ling Ma, author of Severance. The judges called Ma's debut novel “a marvel of form... a hybrid supergenre” in which she considers “the troubled American present, including end-stage capitalism and especially cultural nostalgia, brilliantly conceived as a fatal epidemic.”
- Jaquira Díaz, author of Ordinary Girls. The judges called the book a “devastating memoir is built on the helical structure of memory itself... packed with indelible images of violence and tenderness that evoke landscapes and neighborhoods, families and strangers, drink and drugs and junk food and beach sand and the bodies of lovers and friends.”
- Jia Tolentino, author of Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion. The judges called the New Yorker staff writer's debut “a marvel” that captured “what seems unknowable about the internet and what it is to grow up in its orbit, to become misshapen and seduced by it, defined by it,” with essays that are “compulsively readable [and] shot through with surprise, offering us the delights of eloquence and the satisfactions of her deep, inquiring mind.”
- Aria Aber, author of Hard Damage. The judges called Aber's debut “a riotous meeting place where Rilke, pedicures, lamb kebabs, Proust, and the goddess Artemis cross paths,” with poems that “evoke worlds lost and found with glowing intensity” and “multiple languages [that] braid and teach each other what words can mean.”
- Diannely Antigua, author of Ugly Music. The judges said Antigua's poems “layer lyricism, religious language, and the tactile materials of daily life to build altars of affection for the people and things of her world,” each “meticulously shaped by a formal and aesthetic vision that already feels authoritative.”
- Jake Skeets, author of Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers. The judges called Skeets “a fierce observer of the world” who “assembles lives and landscape with such measured precision that the poems themselves begin to breathe,” counting among his “notable gifts... a lush and surprising imagery, formal dexterity, and an imagination that goes far beyond the borders of the self to extend empathy to everything it touches.”
- Genya Turovskaya, author of The Breathing Body of This Thought. The judges called Turovskaya's poems “spare and haunting... exquisitely wrought” works that “refuse the business and noise of contemporary life in order to clear a space for what’s most deeply interior, private, and elusive about the world of the mind.”
- Will Arbery, playwright and author of Heroes of the Fourth Turning, Plano, Evanston Salt Costs Climbing, and Wheelchair. The judges called Arbery “intellectually audacious [and] formally sly, [with] the courage to let [his] characters seize the stage with impassioned arguments about morality and meaning,” and added, of his writing , that it “moves to the beat of multiple metronomes: the rhythms of thought, the counterpoint of competing logics, the heartbeat of human longing.”
The Whiting Awards, established by the Whiting Foundation in 1985, come with a prize of $50,000, one of the largest available to emerging writers and awarded "on the criteria of early-career achievement and the promise of superior literary work to come." To date, the Foundation has awarded a total of $8 million to more than 300 fiction and nonfiction writers, poets, and playwrights to date.
On its 35th anniversary year, the Whiting Foundation was forced, like most other organizations with public-facing events scheduled for this time, to call off its traditional Whiting Awards ceremony in order to avoid possible Covid-19 transmission. That said, the Foundation intends to reschedule a celebration of the winners once restrictions on public gathering have been lifted. Pulitzer Prize finalist, MacArthur Fellow, and Whiting Award winner Sarah Ruhl will share the judges’ citations and her own remarks with the winners and the public at that time.
“We wish to celebrate extraordinary writers, but we find ourselves in extraordinary times, ones where we are all reinventing how to gather, exchange ideas, and deepen our connections with each other across a necessary distance,” Courtney Hodell, director of the Foundation's literary programs, said in a statement. “As long as literature has existed, it has served this purpose, and we look to writers for their uncanny ability to sift raw experience for its poetry and truth. What we are living now, Whiting writers will reflect back to us in time, with depth and clarity and heart.”
Looking Back on 35 Years
The list of Whiting Award recipients reads as something of a who's who of contemporary American literary and cultural history. Included in these ranks are poets laureate, winners of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, accomplished bestsellers, Broadway stars, and beloved cult figures. Numbered among them are Tracy K. Smith, Colson Whitehead, Sigrid Nunez, Tony Kushner, Susan-Lori Parks, Yiyun Li, Deborah Eisenberg, Elif Batuman, Jeffrey Eugenides, Lydia Davis, August Wilson, Alice McDermott, Jericho Brown, Victor Lavalle, Tyehimba Jess, Z.Z. Packer, Jonathan Franzen, Denis Johnson, Darryl Pinckney, Jorie Graham, Ben Fountain, Terrance Hayes, Adam Johnson, Lucas Hnath, and John Jeremiah Sullivan. More recent winners include Ocean Vuong, Esmé Weijun Wang, and Michael R. Jackson.
To celebrate the 35th anniversary of the awards, four of its winners over the past three and a half decades—Mary Karr, Suketu Mehta, Alexander Chee, and Lisa Halliday—told Publishers Weekly in their own words what winning the prize meant to them.
Mary Karr, class of 1989
"The early blessings [from winning a Whiting Award] count more than what comes later—cash and invites to shining isles and honorary this and thats. You get spoiled. No one likes to admit this, but it’s true. But before the Whiting, there was much disappointment. At the reception, I met many literary editors whose names I’d only read, and I weaseled my way into a dinner with the agent who represented not a few of them. 'You should write a memoir,' she said to me. And I went home and started to knuckle down on the story I’d been jamming into fiction and poetry with little success for more than a decade. Six years later, it had turned into The Liars’ Club. It all started with that phone call."
Suketu Mehta, class of 1997
"The Whiting Award came at a time in my career when very few people believed that I, an Indian-American man from Bombay and Jackson Heights, Queens, with no literary pedigree, would make it as a writer. And I got the award for both my fiction and nonfiction, thus demonstrating the judges' keen awareness that there are no border walls when it comes to writing. It was instrumental in supporting my first book, which matters so much more than all the support that comes later."
Alexander Chee, class of 2003
"The Whiting changed the course of my career, allowing me to turn a corner on my professional life at a critical time. I don’t know what my career would look like if I hadn’t had the time and support the Foundation’s award offered. And I made friends in my
cohort I still have. It is one of the great honors of my life to be a part of the tradition."
Lisa Halliday, class of 2017
"In the beginning, a Whiting Award is wind in your sails just when you need it. You don’t know you’ve been nominated, so the news of having received one is the purest pleasure and surprise. In my case, the financial component of the award covered the cost of childcare and a place to work during the first two years of my daughter’s life. But the true value of a Whiting is so much more than that, because it’s not given for a single work; it’s given for potential. And somehow the exceptionally smart, diligent, and delightful people who work at the Foundation really do make you feel that they are looking out for you, that they are on your side. On the days riddled with self-doubt, it helps to remember this: at the Whiting Foundation I have friends. On those days, I write for them."