Back LOA volumes, “equivalent of the Oscar statue,” play recurring role in prestigious Whiting Awards for emerging writers
2016 Whiting Award winner Alice Sola Kim’s image of her John Ashbery volume.

A unique bit of literary symbiosis occurred once again last month in New York City, when the Whiting Foundation presented its 2016 Whiting Awards, which are given annually to ten emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama. As in years past, all ten award winners were presented with one new Library of America hardcover in addition to their $50,000 prize—the physical book being a bonus Whiting Foundation Executive Director Daniel Reid calls “our equivalent of the Oscar statue.”

While no one at LOA or the Whiting Foundation is quite sure when this tradition started, Library of America Editor in Chief Geoffrey O’Brien confirms that he was presented with the LOA volume Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays and Lectures when he received his Whiting Award in Nonfiction in 1988. (O’Brien had not yet joined the LOA staff at the time.)

But if the custom’s origins are lost to literary history, the process by which Whiting Award recipients are paired with LOA titles is straightforward. At the end of the award’s final selection meeting of the year, when the pool of nominees has finally been narrowed to ten winners, the foundation distributes a list of Library of America titles and asks its selection committee—a small group of recognized writers, literary scholars, and editors appointed annually by Whiting—to choose one book to give each awardee.

Executive Director Reid elaborated via email: “The judges make their selections largely by instinct, and for a variety of reasons—they may sense an affinity, or think there is something wonderful for the winner to discover in the LOA book. And they love doing it: they serve anonymously, so this is a wonderful way to send a message through the veil of anonymity, even if its meaning is sometimes obscure.”

Below is a list of all ten 2016 Whiting Award winners and their categories, followed by the names of the authors whose LOA volumes they were awarded. We like to imagine that readers of future years will be able to tease out connections between these pairings:

Brian Blanchfield (Nonfiction)
Edgar Allan Poe

J. D. Daniels (Nonfiction)
Zora Neale Hurston

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs (Poetry)
Gertrude Stein

Madeleine George (Drama)
John Muir

Mitchell S. Jackson (Fiction)
Katherine Anne Porter

Alice Sola Kim (Fiction)
John Ashbery

Catherine Lacey (Fiction)
Theodore Dreiser

Layli Long Soldier (Poetry)
James Agee

Safiya Sinclair (Poetry)
Tennessee Williams

Ocean Vuong (Poetry)
W. E. B. Du Bois

Visit the Whiting Foundation website for further details on this year’s honorees. Excerpts from all ten writers’ work are also available online courtesy of The Paris Review.

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