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Wednesday the PEN American Center released its lengthy list of annual book prizes. Former City Paper staffer Katherine Boo took the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction for Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which is great news, but not a shocker for a much–decorated book.
The big surprise was the recipient of the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, which is awarded to a debut work of fiction: Sergio De La Pava‘s novel A Naked Singularity. The book has a storied history in itself. De La Pava self-published the novel in 2008, and being a 700-page postmodern anti-thriller with little promotional muscle behind it, it should have died a quick death. But the rabid enthusiasm of a handful of critics helped get the book into the hands of the University of Chicago Press, which gave it a wider release last year.
One of the three judges who selected A Naked Singularity is Columbia Heights novelist and short-story writer Danielle Evans (right), who won the PEN/Bingham in 2011 for her debut collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. “The biggest thing is the range of that book,” she says. “It does a lot of hard-to-pull-off things really, really well. It’s one of those books that can be a little disorienting at first…but there’s a really singular, distinctive narrative voice… It’s a 700-page book, so there’s a lot to be impressed with, but that’s what I was really struck by.”
The novel’s back story, though interesting, didn’t influence her enthusiasm for it. “One of the things that I’ve learned, both in terms of good things happening to me and also being a judge, is that so much of that process is subjective,” she says. “It’s not like all of New York publishing said, ‘We’re not going to publish this book!’ A hundred people make individual decisions, and a lot of those decisions, frankly, probably have to do with sales even more than the quality of the book. I’m betting somebody read some pages of it and thought, ‘This is great, but I can’t sell this.'”
Recognizing authors who operate outside the big publishing machine may be a trend with the prize. Paul W. Morris, PEN American Center’s director of membership, marketing, and literary awards, said that there was a “huge spike” in the number of submissions for the PEN/Bingham prize—-approximately 60 percent—-which he attributes in large part to last year’s winner, Vanessa Veselka‘s Zazen, published by a small, newish indie press, Red Lemonade. “That blew open the doors for a lot of smaller publishers to come in.” (Among the finalists for this year’s prize is Jac Jemc‘s novel My Only Wife, published by tiny Dzanc Books.)
But A Naked Singularity but may not have had a chance in its self-published state. The PEN awards run on fee-based submissions, and the fee is typically waived for smaller presses. But were a self-published author to pay to gain entry, “it’s going to be something the [awards] committee discusses,” Morris says. “Traditionally, we don’t consider them,” he adds.
Now that her judging duties are wrapped up, Evans is back at work on her first novel, a draft of which she recently completed. “I’m really excited about where I’m at with it,” she says. “But where I’m at is not done.”
Correction: Based on information provided by Paul W. Morris, the original version of this post said that the PEN Literary Awards have no formal policy on considering self-published books. But after this post ran, Morris clarified that PEN actually does have a policy against them, as made clear on the organization’s website. The post has been corrected.