Tuesday morning, Beinecke Library staff set up a small, modestly lit stage and 40 chairs upstairs to prepare for the announcement of this year’s Windham-Campbell Literature Prize winners. The prize awards $150,000 to each of nine writers — three in drama, three in nonfiction and three in fiction.
Though this certainly makes for a noteworthy accolade, few people attended the ceremony. Almost all those who came worked at the Beinecke. University President Peter Salovey read a short speech: He named the winners, summarized their careers, thanked listeners and left. The whole thing took less than 20 minutes.
Despite the small reception in New Haven, the event attracted a much larger audience than could be contained in the Beinecke. Michael Kelleher, program director of the Windham-Campbell Prizes, opened proceedings by saying, “We’re being watched all over the world live right now.” Indeed, the announcement was live-streamed over the Internet.
The ambitions of the Windham-Campbell Prize certainly merit global attention. It aims to reward writers in the English language from all over the world for demonstrating achievement or promise in their respective genres. In an interview with the News, Kelleher joked that he was happy that this year was the first when over half the winners already knew what the Windham-Campbell Prize was, and that no one thought the phone call notifying them that they’d won was a Nigerian Prince scam. But in all seriousness, the vast scope of the award has attracted international attention, and though it was created only three years ago, the Windham-Campbell Prize has quickly acquired significant prestige.
The prize was created by Donald Windham who, upon his death in 2010, left the majority of his estate to Yale in order to fund the Windham-Campbell Prizes. Hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, Windham moved to New York City soon after graduating high school to become a writer. There, his career took off when he collaborated with Tennessee Williams on “You Touched Me!,” and he went on to become a critically acclaimed novelist.
Windham’s success never came easy. He never went to college, and as a young, financially struggling writer, he worked odd jobs in New York City. It is perhaps because of this difficulty that Windham wished to create a prize that would not only honor well-known authors with impressive bodies of work, but also — and perhaps more importantly — provide younger, less established writers with the financial opportunity to focus on their craft.
Eugene V. Kokot, co-executor of the Windham-Campbell estate, says he ensures that the selection committees choose winners that match Windham’s goals. “It was Donald’s intent to give someone the prize who would really benefit from money to aid [their] writing, without having to work a second job to make ends meet,” he said. In keeping with this mission, last year’s winners have expressed their gratitude for the prize, which has enabled them to stop looking for temp jobs and worrying about money, and to finally focus on establishing themselves among literati.
The newfound ease of the prizewinners is the result of a long and complicated process. Each year, Kelleher travels to a different part of the world to familiarize himself with the region’s literary circles. He then chooses 60 nominators — usually writers or academics — who will each choose one “established” writer and one “up-and-comer” to nominate for the prize. He cited the importance of having what he called a “saturation” of nominees from a particular part of the world, so that every year selectors can closely examine the literature of a given country, rather than annually comparing literature from all over the world.
Selection committees choose winners not based on a single masterpiece; instead, they look at the writers’ entire bodies of work. Judges on the committee then pick a book they think is indicative of the overall quality of an author’s work to send to a panel of jurists, who decide on the final winners. It’s a long process, and usually takes an entire year. In fact, Kelleher begins searching for new nominators the day after winners are announced.
This involved procedure yields promising results. “The proof that the selection process works is in the people who are selected,” said Richard Deming, an English professor at Yale who teaches the popular creative writing course Daily Themes. “By and large, they aren’t household names, but they have been very impressive.”
The names of the nominators are never made public, and nominees do not find out they’ve been nominated unless they win. The selection committees, also composed of anonymous members, work in seclusion throughout the process to determine the best nominees. Even after their term ends, previous judges cannot reveal their identities to the press.
“The process is anonymous because we wanted to avoid conflicts of interest,” Kokot said. “We want nominators to nominate purely on the basis of their review of authors who deserve a wider audience.”
This could explain the modest reception that accompanied the announcement of the winners; unlike prizes such as the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award, there is little fanfare surrounding the selections. While other literary prizes have celebrity judges and long processes involving publicized longlists, short lists and finalists, the Windham-Campbell doesn’t make a show of its procedure. As J.D. McClatchy, editor of “The Yale Review,” puts it: “The Windham-Campbell has prestige, like the Bollingen, more than glamour, like the Pulitzer.”
McClatchy is not the only person to compare Windham-Campbell to more established prizes. Though the Windham-Campbell program is still in its infancy, members of the literary community have high hopes for its future. The prize was profiled in a Foreign Policy article about prestigious global literary awards, along with the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Man Booker Award. Unlike these accolades, the Windham-Campbell does not allow almost-winners to benefit from being named finalists. However, Teju Cole, one of this year’s fiction winners, says he wouldn’t have wanted to know had he been a finalist. For him, the anonymity de-emphasizes the competitive nature of literary prizes. “Making art is not about rivalry,” he said.
Most commonly, interviewees compared Windham-Campbell either to the Macarthur Genius Award, as the decision processes are similar, or, perhaps more aptly, to Yale’s Bollingen Prize, which is essentially Windham-Campbell’s poetic counterpart.
The Bollingen Prize has awarded literary excellence ever since its inception in 1948, when Ezra Pound was the first winner. Also affiliated with the Beinecke, the Bollingen selects American poets who have published the best book of poetry in the two years preceding the prize’s announcement. It also takes into account lifetime achievement that the judges deem particularly impressive. Its goals, then, are somewhat different than those the Windham-Campbell — the Bollingen is not international, and is rarely given to a junior poet without a significant body of work.
Nancy Kuhl, curator of American Literature at the Beinecke and Program Director for the Bollingen Prize, thinks that, because of these different functions, the Bollingen and Windham-Campbell will mutually inform and enrich one another.
“The two prizes together highlight Yale’s deep investment in great literature,” she said. “This isn’t just a deep investment in research, but also in the creation of great works of art.”
The relationship between Yale and the prizes is, in a sense, symbiotic: The prize enhances Yale students’ experience of literature, and association with Yale lends the prize automatic prestige. Kuhl went on to explain how awards such as these impact students and aspiring writers who are considering entering the field: “When we give an award to a writer, we don’t know what’s going to arise from their imagination, or how that will spark the imaginations of others at a distance.”
The Windham-Campbell has already put significant effort into sparking young imaginations. Since its inception, the prize has maintained a partnership with Co-op Arts and Humanities High School in New Haven. Each year, six students concentrating in creative writing or theater coordinate a panel and workshop with one of the winners.
Lynda Blancato organizes the cooperation between the Beinecke and Co-op High School. “This program shows students that the prizewinners have very diverse paths to their careers as writers,” said Blancato. Even just meeting new people who aren’t from New Haven, she said, is exciting for students — so working with writers from all over the world was especially rewarding.
The high school’s affiliation with Windham-Campbell winners is, in a sense, indicative of the realization of Windham’s goals — for many writers, especially those from outside the U.S., local recognition in New Haven is the first step to recognition abroad. “I’m literally trying to bring these writers to the world,” Kelleher tells me. According to him, the Windham-Campbell Prize intends to bring acclaim to writers who deserve it and whose art should be appreciated by literary enthusiasts around the world.
That said, fame is not the ultimate goal of most writers. “I think making art is about having a voice — prizes are not the reason we do this work,” said Cole. (This was, of course, after saying that he was very happy to have received the Windham-Campbell this year.) “But any opportunity to develop that voice is very meaningful. Money is not the end in itself, but it allows the work to go on.”