To some Aspen visitors, $35,000 might not seem like much money, but to the other 99 percent of us — writers very much included — $35,000 could be life-changing. That’s the plot line behind the Aspen Words Literary Prize, one of the largest awards in the publishing world, given out each year to “an influential work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture.”
Now in its second year, the annual prize has understandably garnered a lot of attention in author circles and saw its submissions jump to 177 this time around. From that lot, all published in the calendar year 2018, a screening committee rated them and narrowed the field down to 16 finalists. A group of judges then each read all 16 finalists to produce a five-book short list from which the winner will be chosen.
Other than a fully anonymous few who tallied the results, no one — not even a single person at Aspen Words — knows who the winner will be. So here’s your big ending: Tonight, April 11, the winner will be announced live at an awards ceremony at the Morgan Library in New York City, and you have the chance to watch it unfold in real time and possibly win big yourself at a party at Pitkin County Library.
“Even though the prize ceremony is in New York City, just because that happens to be where the publishing world is, we’re really hoping that the Aspen community can get behind this prize,” said Ellie Scott, program coordinator for Aspen Words. “That’s why we’re doing the community read. Because we would like the community to engage not only in these authors and the themes they’re highlighting, but also in conversation with itself and hopefully take some pride in ownership over this prize that bears the Aspen name.”
The community read is a novel idea wherein Aspen Words and the library will give out free copies of the winner to anyone who signs up to receive one. The idea is to get a decent mass to read the same book to stimulate conversation among locals.
“We’ll be reading it as a community, and there will be certain events that happen throughout the summer that tie into that book’s themes,” said Scott.
About those themes, the award does go to a book that “illuminates a vital contemporary issue,” so don’t expect anything breezy.
“None of them are going to be beach-read light fiction; that’s just not the nature of the prize,” said Scott. “They all tackle very heavy issues that we are dealing with as a culture.”
It’s a point that is driven home by the book descriptions on Aspen Words’ website.
“Friday Black,” by first-time author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, is a short-story collection that “delivers punches in story after story that awaken us to our absurd realities: brutal racism, murderous consumerism, copycat school shootings.”
“Brother,” by David Chariandy, is “a story of love and compassion between and for characters relegated to the margins because of their class, their color, their immigrant status.”
“Gun Love,” by Jennifer Clement, regales readers with “delicious lyrical language, sudden violence and compelling characters who might save you and then again might not. And yes, guns.”
“An American Marriage,” by Tayari Jones, is a moving love story with a message “about unjust incarceration and a corrupt criminal justice system that has ravaged generations of African-American families.”
And “There There,” by first-time author Tommy Orange, a member of the Cherokee and Arapaho tribes, is “an explosion of poetry and violence, hope and despair.”
For Clement and Jones, both of whom are well-established, successful writers, $35,000, while nice, could be part of a good year, but for the other three a win would be the sort of thing that could radically alter the trajectory of their careers.
“It can suddenly make the writing life feasible and make it possible for someone to think, ‘Oh, I can make a living at being a writer,’” Scott said.
The festivities at the library kick off at 4:15 p.m., with the livestream of the awards ceremony, which will include a conversation with the prize finalists and Renee Montagne, special correspondent and host for NPR, beginning at 4:30 p.m. Refreshments will be served, and prizes will be awarded for correctly guessing the winning book. Explore Booksellers will also be on hand with copies of the five novels for purchase.
To watch the livestream of the awards ceremony online, visit aspenwords.org/programs/literary-prize.