“This spirit of generosity, as well as a love of literature and a profound sympathy for his fellow writers, led Windham to establish the Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prizes at Yale University.”
Such reads a portion of the mission statement for the Windham-Campbell prizes, an award hosted by Yale University and the Beinecke Rare Book Library that annually offers eight writers unrestricted grants of $165,000. The award comes with an invitation to New Haven for a weeklong literary festival honoring the awardees. The recipients, who receive awards for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or drama, spend the festival week giving readings of both published and unpublished works, answering audience questions in panel discussions, and generally celebrating the spirit of the prize.
This September, Scandinavian literary rock star Karl Ove Knausgaard presented the keynote speech at the awards (following last year’s formidable opener Patti Smith), and kicked off a weeklong literary festival honoring the work of writers from the US, Ireland, Jamaica, and beyond. The prize honored a native Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal Australian writer for the first time this year, awarding Ali Cobby Eckermann for her poetry.
As a recent Yale graduate, I have had the distinct pleasure of attending the Windham-Campbell Prizes multiple times. A game of literary speed dating, with a rotation of writers sitting for intimate conversations, stands out as a memorable feature of the festival my junior year. Yale students flock to the events every fall, often sporting tote bags with the attractive logo of “Windham-Campbell Prizes” embedded between two curly brackets. New Haven residents and members of the northeast literati also attend the events, packing Yale’s several auditorium venues.
The first Windham-Campbell prizes were given in 2013, named to honor the literary love and legacy of partners Donald Windham and Sandy M. Campbell. The pair, in addition to being friends with the leading literary figures of their time, both collected books, wrote, and shared a passion for literature. They knew, from personal experiences and from friends, how much financial security can impact the freedom and work of writers. After Campbell’s unexpected death, Windham devoted himself to making their shared dream of a prestigious writing award a reality. Writers do not apply for the award. In fact, winners do not even know they’ve been nominated until they receive the often life-changing call that they’ve won. Although still a young award, the coveted prize has honored and helped leading international writers such as Teju Cole, Edmund DeWaal, Hilton Als, and more. The committee honors early career writers with promise, as well as established career writers. An important event for the English speaking literary world, the Windham-Campbell Prizes give writers the financial freedom to continue creating excellent work.