March 4, 2016

Is there a $150,000 literary prize in your junk folder?


Spam: could contain fortunes, but probably not.

Spam: could contain fortunes. (But probably not.)

When was the last time you checked your junk folder? Well, if you’re a writer with significant achievements or with great potential, you might want to brave that repository of spam and dodgy offers more often. It could be hiding a $150,000 literary prize.

Monica Tan reports for The Guardian that the Australian writer Helen Garner found out she’d won the Windham-Campbell prize by reading an email in her junk folder. The email was from a stranger claiming to be from Yale University promising he had “good news” and asking for her phone number. You can see why she was suspicious. “I thought, definitely somebody’s having me on,” she told an interviewer on Wednesday.

It took contact with her publishers and Yale University to convince Garner that it was not a hoax and that she had indeed won a real prize.

The Windham-Campbell prize is awarded annually to nine writers writing fiction, non-fiction or drama in English. The aim of the prize is to “call attention to literary achievement and provide writers with the opportunity to focus on their work independent of financial concerns”. Unlike most prizes, it does not have a submission process and writers are not informed if they are being considered for the prize. So it’s perhaps inevitable that winning authors might react with surprise or disbelief.

In fact, Garner wasn’t the only winning writer who was initially dubious. According to The Guardian, the Irish playwright Abbie Spallen “thought it was a scam” while the Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch almost didn’t listen to the voicemail on her phone telling her she’d won: “I thought it was ‘Congratulations, you’ve won a cruise to Florida if you pay $200’.”

The other writers—who definitely did win the prize and who definitely weren’t part of the same scam—are Tessa Hadley, Jerry Pinto, Hilton Als, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, CE Morgan and Stanley Crouch. An unconfirmed report on Thursday suggested the organisers were considering renaming the award The Windham-Campbell Yes, really! prize.



Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.