Who Was Mrs. Giles Whiting?

I’m sure a lot of people out there know the answer to this question, but I’m not one of them. All I’ve been able to ascertain is that her first name was Flora, middle initial E, and she was married to someone named Giles Whiting. More pertinent is the fact that in 1963, having a lot of money and a keen interest in literature, she established the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation. Headquartered in New York City, the Foundation is dedicated to the support of the humanities and of creative writing.

In what ways does the Foundation provide this support? I can answer that one.

First, through grants to scholars studying the humanities. Select graduate students from seven universities – Bryn Mawr, University of Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale – receive yearly grants from the Whiting Foundation to support them while they work on their dissertations.

Second, through paid sabbaticals and research fellowships to junior faculty at Baruch, Brooklyn, and Kenyon Colleges. This gives outstanding teachers a better chance for the fulfilling academic careers usually associated with those who can commit themselves to research.

Third, and what we’re here to talk about today, through the annual Whiting Writers’ Awards. This program grants $50,000 each to ten emerging writers of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and plays.

These awards are based on a writer’s accomplishment and promise. Candidates are proposed by nominations from across the U.S., and winners are then chosen by a selection committee. Both nominators and selectors serve anonymously. Since its inception in 1985, the program has awarded more then $6 million to 250 poets, fiction and nonfiction writers, and playwrights.

The purpose of the Whiting Award is to identify exceptional new writers who have not yet made their mark in the literary culture. The grant provides recipients an opportunity to devote themselves fully to writing for a period of time, helping them to establish their careers. The recognition of winning also has a significant impact.

Most winners have published one book, but some published more than one, and some had never yet published in book form, before winning the award. Established writers were sometimes recognized in the early years, but now the Foundation focuses entirely on writers who are relative unknowns.

The nominators are literary professionals – mostly writers, but sometimes teachers, editors, agents, critics, bookstore owners, and others as well. The roster is different each year, though some have served more than once. These nominators are contacted by the Foundation and asked to nominate one emerging writer of exceptional talent and promise.

The director of the Foundation’s Writers’ Program appoints six or seven writers of distinction to serve as the selection committee, which meets four times over the course the year. First, they select new nominators. Then they read the work of the nominees – each selector reads every nominee’s work, no matter what the genre – and meet three more times to narrow the field to ten. Their recommendations are presented to the Board of Trustees for ratification.

All nominators and selectors serve anonymously, so they will not be subject to pressure. This also enables them to speak candidly about the writers under consideration.

In making their selection, the committee must rely on their own expertise and experience. The definitions of emerging and promising vary from one genre to another, and from one individual to another within any one genre. Therefore the issue is looked at on a case-by-case basis with no measurable standard such as age or publication record.

On October 28 the Foundation announced the ten winners of the 2009 award: The fiction-writing recipients include short story writer Vu Tran, born in Vietnam and now living in Las Vegas; Adam Johnson, whose debut short story collection, Emporium, the setting of which is described by New York Times critic Michiko Kakatuni as being “somewhere between Kurt Vonnegut’s sci-fi empire and that wild and crazy land of weirdos limned in T. Coraghessan Boyle’s stories;” Nami Mun, author of Miles From Nowhere, a 1980s urban odyssey in which a 12-year-old Korean-American leaves her troubled Bronx family for the life of a New York City runaway; and Salvatore Scibona, whose novel The End was a National Book Award finalist in 2008.

The roster of this year’s $50,000 winners is rounded out with poets Jay Hopler, Jericho Brown and Joan Kane; playwright Rajiv Joseph; and nonfiction authors Michael Meyer and Hugh Raffles.

A complete list of all recipients can be found on the Foundation’s website.

As a Novel Journey reader, you might never win such a prestigious (and profitable) award, but you do have an opportunity to participate in our new awards program, OUT OF THE SLUSH PILE, Novel Journey’s Fifteen Minutes of Fame Contest. If you haven’t already made plans to enter, please check out the details.

In 2010 we will have twelve monthly winners, and in January 2011, we will acknowledge the grand prize, best-of-the-year award winner. So get those unpublished novels polished up, download the entry form,and email your submissions to NovelJourneyContest@gmail.com. We’ve already received some entries, but we’re looking for yours!