Aspen Words’ Issue-Driven Literary Prize: The 2021 Longlist

In News by Porter Anderson

The Aspen Words Literary Prize’s fourth longlist includes five debuts and is focused on authors whose work deals in cultural relevance.

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Brodeur: ‘To Imagine Better Ways of Existing’
As Publishing Perspectives readers know, the Aspen Words Literary Award, directed by author Adrienne Brodeur, is distinctive in the crowded world of book and publishing awards because of its annual search for “an influential work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture.”

Put more plainly, “Eligible works,” for this award, as today’s announcement has it, “include novels or short story collections that address questions of violence, inequality, gender, the environment, immigration, religion, racism or other social issues.”

Today’s (November 10) announcement of its 15-author 2020 longlist exemplifies this, in 13 novels and two short story collections. And in addition to its specialization in serious, culturally relevant material, its purse—at US$35,000 for the winner—makes it one of the richest such awards in the American book community.

Notably, there are five debuts on this list, which now will be handled by a jury comprising:

Jurors announced for the 2021 Aspen Words Literary Prize are, from left, Emily Bernard, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Daniel Shaw, and Luis Alberto Urrea

It’s interesting to note that six of the 15 books come from Penguin Random House, five of those from Riverhead. HarperCollins is the publishing house behind three of the titles, and Simon & Schuster produced one of them. Independent houses represented are WW Norton with two titles and Catapult, Feminist Press, and Tin House with one each.

You’ll find writers with deep track records here (Lydia Millet), high-profile newcomers (Bryan Washington) and many more authors whose work may well be new to you.

A list of finalists for 2021 is expected on February 17, with the 2021 winner of the prize to be named on April 19.

Aspen Words Literary Prize 2021 Longlist
Author Title Publisher, Imprint
Tola Rotimi Abraman Black Sunday Catapult
Susan Abulhawa Against the Loveless World Simon & Schuster / Atria Books
Rumann Alam Leave the World Behind HarperCollins / Ecco
Brit Bennett The Vanishing Half Penguin Random House / Riverhead
Diane Cook The New Wilderness HarperCollins
Juliana Delgado Lopera Fiebre Tropical Feminist Press
Akwaeke Emezi The Death of Vivek Oji Penguin Random House / Riverhead
Louise Erdrich The Night Watchman HarperCollins
Danielle Evans The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Stories Penguin Random House / Riverhead
Yaa Gyasi Transcendent Kingdom Penguin Random House / Knopf
Randall Kenan If I Had Two Wings: Stories WW Norton
Lydia Millet A Children’s Bible: A Novel WW Norton
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi A Girl is a Body of Water Tin House
Brandon Taylor Real Life Penguin Random House / Riverhead
Bryan Washington Memorial Penguin Random House / Riverhead
Brodeur: ‘This Time of Social Upheaval’

When Publishing Perspectives spoke with Brodeur in June as the call went out for this fourth cycle of the award’s submissions, she explained how it has come about that the program is so focused on meaningful work that addresses contemporary concerns. “When I first came on to Aspen Words and got to know both Aspen Words and our parent organization, the Aspen Institute,” she said, “it seemed like the institute was doing such important work with regard to public policy and the type of social issues that I was interested in reading about.

Adrienne Brodeur

“I thought, such a prize as this—an award for fiction that shines a spotlight on a social issue, examines it, and brings it into the public discourse—it just made so much sense as one of the programs of the Aspen Institute. And when I proposed this, the institute was very supportive and then when we found a donor who remains anonymous to support the prize in perpetuity—I mean it’s just a wonderful. NPR is our media partner.”

And as the program today announces its new longlist, Brodeur says, “The books on this longlist examine subjects that cut across racial, economic, political, and sexual divides.

“In the pages of these books, we read about many of the issues that are playing out before our eyes during this time of social upheaval–climate collapse, government breakdown, racism, and sexism. And therein lies the power of reading fiction: to create empathy and allow us to imagine better ways of existing.”

  • Open to authors of any nationality, the prize’s inaugural honor went to Mohsin Hamid in 2018 for Exit West, his novel about migration and refugees.
  • Tayari Jones won the 2019 prize for An American Marriage, her novel about racism and unjust incarceration.
  • Christy Lefteri received the 2020 prize for her novel The Beekeeper of Aleppo, about Syrian refugees.

Aspen Words was founded in 1976 as a literary center based in Aspen, Colorado. A program of the Aspen Institute, its mission is to encourage writers, inspire readers, and connect people through the power of stories.


More from Publishing Perspectives on international awards programs is here. More from us on the Aspen Words Literary Prize is here, more on the American book business is here. And more on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here 

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As as an arts critic (National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.