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Volume 26, Number 5 — May 2019

Bellwether prize given to books with courageous themes

 Lisa Ko’s work, “The Leavers,” in 2016 was set in New York and China
Lisa Ko’s work, “The Leavers,” in 2016 was set in New York and China
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By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | October 31, 2018

The Bellwether Prize, founded by Barbara Kingsolver in 1999, is the largest monetary prize for an unpublished work of fiction in North America. In 2012, it became the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Consisting of $25,000 and publication, it is awarded biennially to an unpublished novel manuscript by a writer who has previously published articles or short stories but not a major novel.

“I’ve been so lucky. When I began to earn more money than my family needed for our happy life, I wanted to pass it on. The prize is for an unpublished first novel, which means the winner gains a new career as a novelist. I’ve kept in touch with all of them and have been gratified to see their careers blossom. Last year a former winner was a finalist for the National Book Award, another had her book adapted into a major film,” Kingsolver says explaining why she decided to found the prize.

The prize is designed to be a career-founding event for writers with outstanding literary skills, moral passion and the courage to combine these strengths in unusually powerful fiction.

The last prize-winning novel was Lisa Ko’s work, “The Leavers,” in 2016. Set in New York and China,“The Leavers”is a vivid examination of borders and belonging. It’s a moving story of how a boy comes intohis own when everything he loves is taken away, and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of the past. It was on the short-list for the National Book Award that year.

Kingsolver said, “The first time I saw this novel in manuscript, I knew this was exactly the kind of story we want to bring to publication with The Bellwether Prize. Lisa Ko is the kind of author whose career we’re thrilled to launch. She and the eight previous Bellwether winners have all put further work into the world that demonstrates the power of art in a time when we desperately need it. Their work gives me hope. I’m honored to call these writers my colleagues.”

Manuscripts are judged blind to avoid any form of bias; the identity of the author of the winning manuscript (and all other submissions) is not known by any judge or prize administrator until after the decision is finalized.

A rotating panel of authors whose work exemplifies the type of literary fiction judge the manuscripts this prize seeks to support. Previous judges include Russell Banks, Ursula K. Le Guin, Barry Lopez, Toni Morrison, John Nichols, Ruth Ozeki, Anna Quindlen, Paula Sharp and others.

Past winners of the prize include Donna Gershten for “Kissing the Virgin’s Mouth,” Gayle Brandeis for “The Book of Dead Birds,” Marjorie Kowalski Cole for “Correcting the Landscape,” Hillary Jordan for “Mudbound,” Heidi W. Durrow for “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky,” Naomi Benaron for “Running the Rift,” Susan Nussbaum for “Good Kings, Bad Kings,” Ron Childress for “And West is West” and Lisa Ko for “The Leavers.”

Since the prize began, only one male writer has won. We asked Kingsolver if she had a theory as to why this occurred.

“It’s surprising, isn’t it? We know nothing about the authors until we’ve chosen a winner, and nine out of 10 have turned out to be female. The prize specifically rewards writing that tackles courageous themes, and that may explain it. Our culture is uneasy around women with big ideas and moral authority. Maybe more women enter the Bellwether competition because their literary ambitions haven’t been as welcomed in other publishing channels.”

The next Bellwether Prize will be announced in early 2019.

More information about the prize can be found at or at


"The Leaves" is a moving story of how a boy comes into his own when everything he loves is taken away, and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of the past.