Friday, September 18, 2009

The Twenty-Five Thousand Pound Story

They sure know how to fund a literary award across the pond. On Sept. 13, the London's Sunday Times announced a £25,000 prize for just a single short story of up to 7,000 words from an author previously published in the U.K. or Ireland. (I'm not sure whether you have to be a citizen or resident of either place.) The deadline is November 30.

The name -- The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award -- is long enough to be a short story itself, but the prize comes to more than $40,000 at current exchange rates (at the least, close to $6 a word), more than any U.S. prize specifically for short fiction. The closest U.S. contender is the Rea Award, at $30,000, and that's for an author, not an individual work. The prize for the Ireland-based Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award is £35,000 (we'll find out the winner in a few days).

For the most part, U.S. literary prize amounts are markedly lower than those in the U.K. and Ireland. Enlisting corporate sponsorship has allowed book awards like Man Booker to hand out some pretty nice checks (£50,000). It's hard to imagine a U.S. newspaper teaming up with a U.S. bank to create a short story prize (especially with both industries tottering). The Los Angeles Times Wells Fargo Short Story Prize? The Financial Times and Goldman Sachs, however, do team up for a business book award. So maybe that's something we should explore further.

After five years, at $20,000, The Story Prize still offers the highest amount of any annual U.S. book award for fiction. Among the major fiction prizes, PEN/Faulkner pays $15,000, and the National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prize both hand out $10,000. Of course, U.S. book awards offer the promise of reaching a larger audience. The Pulitzer, in particular, can pay rich dividends. Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge remains on the paperback bestseller list after 15 weeks. The U.S. also offers other support to writers, such as the MacArthur genius grants. Still, wouldn't it be nice to see some larger literary prize sums in the offing?