5 Under 35 and What it Means to Be an Emerging Writer

The following is a guest post by Benjamin Samuel, program manager of the National Book Foundation—presenting partners at tomorrow’s “5 Under 35″ panel and reading at the Library’s Montpelier Room.

2015 5 Under 35 Honoree Angela Flournoy.

2015 5 Under 35 Honoree Angela Flournoy.

At the National Book Foundation, we often say our 5 Under 35 Honorees are young emerging writers who are poised to make a lasting impression on the literary landscape. But what does it mean to be an “emerging writer”? From where, or from what, are these writers emerging? Perhaps they are sprouting in the fertile fields of MFA programs across the country, where soon they’ll be entrenched in a form of literary Darwinism, competing over the limited resources of agents, grants, residencies, and publishing contracts. Or perhaps they came up alone, metamorphosing from some larval literary state and transcending into the writer form, a few publishing credits patterning their wings. Maybe they are simply emerging from the shadows cast by more established writers, whose sterling reputations and towering heaps of laurels make it nearly impossible for a new writer to gain notice. And it could be that, in a more prosaic sense, these emerging writers are finally leaving the desks and library carrels and coffee shops where they wrote in order to show the world what they have created. (It’s worth noting that the literary magazine One Story holds an annual Debutante Ball to celebrate their writers who have published a first book.)

Whatever imagery “emerging writer” conjures for you, it is clear that these are writers at the beginning of their career. And, as anyone who’s ever started anything knows, it is at that moment that we are most in need of encouragement and support. Honorees in the 5 Under 35 program are selected by an established writer who sees in them the promise of a rare and remarkable talent, one that will continue to develop for years to come. This sort of validation can change a writer’s life and jump-start her career.

2015 5 Under 35 Honoree Tracy O'Neill.

2015 5 Under 35 Honoree Tracy O’Neill.

For 10 years, the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 program has been championing young, debut writers, helping to introduce them and their work into the more established literary community. Our honorees, who come from all over the world, have become National Book Award finalists and winners, gone on to publish more books (at times as a direct consequence of being named a 5 Under 35), and continue to be engaged by the writing world. Just some of authors recognized by the 5 Under 35 program over the years include National Book Award Winner Phil Klay; Valeria Luiselli, winner of a LA Times Book Prize for Fiction; Dinaw Mengestu, a MacArthur Fellow; Téa Obreht, winner of the Orange Prize; ZZ Packer, a PEN/Faulkner finalist; and Pulitzer Prize finalist Karen Russell.

What further distinguishes this honor from other prizes is that the 5 Under 35 program supports the authors, not just their books. The Foundation continues to rally behind the writer for years and is currently scheduling reunion tours across the country, including one at the Associated Writers & Writing Programs Conference in LA and another in partnership with the Miami Book Fair International.

2015 5 Under 35 Honoree Colin Barrett.

2015 5 Under 35 Honoree Colin Barrett.

The Foundation is grateful to launch a series of annual 5 Under 35 events at the Library of Congress, as the kind of milestone moment that marks a transition from emerging to established. This Thursday’s events at the Library of Congress will allow the 2015 5 Under 35 honorees to share their experiences as emerging authors as well as their brilliant books that brought them to this moment.

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