The Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction was inspired by the books required by the South Carolina high school some of our young relatives attended. They were assigned novels set in Iraq, Afghanistan, China, but had never read To Kill a Mockingbird, an American classic.
We gave them Harper Lee’s masterpiece, but they didn’t finish it. Their mother explained that they couldn’t handle the “dialect.” We were horrified. Were they also skipping Mark Twain because they can’t read “dialect”? What else were they missing? And was it right that our schools were not assigning our classics, in order to focus on those set in other countries? Were they also missing great twenty-first century books set in the South?
Since we often read good books set in the South, we decided we should celebrate some of the new books with a prize. We would fund it, establish rules, assemble a panel of judges, and set a prize.
We named the prize after a famous writer, a University of Texas fraternity brother of Dave’s, Willie Morris, who got his start in journalism as editor of The Daily Texan, the school’s newspaper. Willie went on to become the youngest-ever editor of Harper’s, and he wrote a series of non-fiction books. Our favorite, North Toward Home, Willie’s first book, speaks to anyone (Southern or not) who left a small town and came to New York. Our prize is for fiction, but we feel comfortable using Willie’s name because his books read like fiction—in the best sense of those words.
The spirit of the winning novel should reflect these words of Willie’s, “hope for belonging, for belief in a people’s better nature, for steadfastness against all that is hollow or crass or rootless or destructive.” It is chosen for the quality of its prose, its originality, its sense of place and period, and the appeal of its characters.
When we established the annual Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction, we instituted a few other criteria for the books we sought to celebrate. We defined what we meant by Southern: the winning book had to be set in one of the original eleven states in the Confederacy. (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.) Many books submitted are rejected because they are not set in one of these states. We’ve had books submitted with locations in Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, etc.
The book must be published in the year designated. For example, the book that will receive the award in October, 2012, was published in 2011. We reject books published earlier than the prescribed date. Books published in 2012 are now being considered for the prize.
Short stories and linked short stories are not eligible. The winning book must be a classic novel, over 50,000 words in length. Non-fictional references and elements are acceptable only if included in moderation.
The selected prize-winning book may contain violence and despair, and feature terrible events, but in the final analysis must be uplifting, and suggest hope and optimism.
The recipient of the Willie Morris Award receives $2,500.00, and an expense paid trip to New York City. (The winner must come to NY to receive the award, attend a luncheon with the contest judges and a reception in his/her honor.) At the reception copies of the book are given to those attending, and the author is available to sign them. On that same evening, the author makes a few remarks about the book. This year, more than 100 invited guests attended the reception; and nearly 100 books were given away. We reserve large and attractive rooms for the receptions—in past years, the ballroom of the Cosmopolitan Club, an equivalent space at the Knickerbocker Club. The 2011 ceremony and reception were held at the New York Yacht Club, considered one of the most beautiful venues in the city.
We advertise for submissions in Publisher’s Weekly, Oxford American and Poets & Writers with a deadline of March 31 for the previous year. The winner is announced in these same publications.
Awards are listed below:
2011: If Jack’s in Love by Stephen Wetta
2010: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
2009: Secret Keepers by Mindy Friddle
2008: The City of Refuge by Tom Piazza
2007: The King of Colored Town by Darryl Wimberley
Those who wish to be considered for the prize should read previous winners.
For this year’s award, publishers and authors are invited to send one copy of a book published in 2012 to:
Reba White Williams
2 Dearfield Drive
Greenwich, CT 06831
For additional information, inquire via email:
Reba White Williams and Dave Williams