Criteria: The charter of the Neustadt Prize stipulates that the award be given in recognition of outstanding achievement in poetry, fiction, or drama and that it be conferred solely on the basis of literary merit. Any living author writing in any language is eligible, provided only that at least a representative portion of his or her work is available in English, the language used during the jury deliberations. The prize may serve to crown a lifetime’s achievement or to direct attention to an important body of work that is still developing. (The prize is not open to application.)
A new international jury of outstanding writers is selected to decide the winner of each Neustadt Prize in odd-numbered years. The members of the jury are determined by the executive director of World Literature Today (who is the only permanent member) in consultation with the journal’s editors and the president of the University of Oklahoma. Each juror nominates one author for the prize. The jurors convene for two to three days at the University of Oklahoma for their deliberations, and the winner is announced at the banquet honouring the laureate of the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature. A special ceremony in the laureate’s honour is then held the following year, and the writer’s life and work are subsequently profiled in a special issue of World Literature Today.
The Prize consists of $50,000, a replica of an eagle feather cast in silver, and a certificate.
Often billed as the “American Nobel”, biennial Neustadt International Prize for Literature is a rare bird in the world of literary prizes: its sole mandate is to reward literary merit, with no limitations on author nationality, language, or form. While an open door policy is uncommon for literary prizes on a global level, it’s an even more unlikely in the U.S. Most literary awards in the U.S. are open exclusively to American citizens – the Pulitzer, the National Book Awards, National Book Critics Circle Award, and the PEN/Faulkner to name a few – and, given the robust market of American literature available to them, they have never had a need to expand eligibility any further (unlike the Man Booker…what, who said that?). The Neustadt, then, is a standout in the field of American prizes, because its scope has been international since its inception.
But the Neustadt departs from the Nobel model in two major ways. The prize is given to an author based on one representative work from their oeuvre, which, honestly, makes it a prize easily digested by the public. Not only does it provide a recommendation for the unacquainted reader, but it opens up further discussions about why that work in particular has been selected. Anticipatory conversations about Nobel contenders can often end up being erudite, unless one has been keeping an eye on the latest gossip and fluctuations of betting odds. And then, the Nobel simply selects “the best”, and leaves us to it; the inner workings of the Swedish Academy are a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Members are careful to hide the works of shortlisted authors in their bags when they go out in public, and none of the members are go on a press tour to discuss the potential candidates. In this sense, the Neustadt does a better job of making a range of world class authors more accessible to the everyday reader, albeit for a more localised audience.
The selection process is entirely different as well. Many of the most prestigious literary prizes try to downplay the shifting subjectivity of prize juries from year to year, and seem to see it as a negative, or something that might detract from the credibility of their award. The Neustadt, however, embraces that subjectivity by allowing each juror to select a candidate. Plenty of attention is given to the jurors themselves as well: on the website, they are featured in exactly the same way the candidates, with a brief biography that is easily accessed on the site’s page. Most awards will identify their jury members with a quick bio of each, but it is refreshing to see a prize put the subjectivity of prize juries in such a positive light.
Still, in spite of these differences, the Neustadt and the Nobel have had a number of convergences, which the former is quick to remind us of. The vast majority of Nobel Prize winners in the past forty years have been recognised by the Neustadt in one way or another: Kenzaburō Ōe was a two-time candidate, Gabriel García Marquez is a Neustadt laureate, and J.M. Coetzee was both a juror and candidate. Dr. Robert Con Davis-Undiano, the executive director of World Literature Today, the magazine that manages the prize, says the connection has not gone unnoticed:
“I think the Swedish Academy has noticed that the Neustadt Prize process sifts through the world’s best and most important writers, and it helps them immeasurably to follow what we do as one strong indicator of what they should be looking at…one year they even invited the whole World Literature Today staff to the Nobel ceremony to acknowledge their indebtedness to our prize.”
Each group of Neustadt jurors, too, has consistently reflected the prize’s international scope. Davis-Undiano goes on to elucidate:
“…we try to make sure that each jury has a balance of Eastern, Western, African, Middle-Eastern, etc.” In addition, Davis-Undiano mentions an international circle of “roughly 800 advisers… [who] keep us informed about who has currently entered that pool of writers to watch.”
Though in the past jurors have shown the tendency to nominate authors from their own countries, the jury itself is usually so diverse that that diversity carries over into the pool of candidates anyway.
Neustadt International Prize 2014 Nominees
So which authors have surfaced in this iteration’s crop of candidates? Mostly, they’re familiar faces: Mia Cuoto of Mozambique, Korean-American Chang-rae Lee, Haruki Murakami (for the third time), Césare Aira of Argentina, and the Ukrainian Ilya Kaminsky. Ghassan Zaqtan is the first ever Palestinian author to be nominated; a poet, novelist, and editor, he has been nominated by his own translator, Fady Joudah. All the candidates have picked up a honour or two during their career, but it is nonetheless wonderful to see them receiving this kind of exposure. And even though Mia Cuoto has enjoyed more international recognition that Zaqtan, it is worth mentioning that he is the first Mozambican author to be nominated. While the publicity for this prize does not quite match that of the Nobel, or even the National Book Awards, which presented its shortlist on a morning talk show last week, the Neustadt is nonetheless a lofty platform.
See the full list of candidates and jurors on World Literature Today
Another handy intro from Publishing Perspectives