New American literary award confers $1,500,000 in prizes

Inaugural recipients include Tom MacCarthy, James Salter and Zoë Wicomb.

The novelists Tom MacCarthy, James Salter and Zoë Wicomb are among a group of ten writers who have each been awarded $150,000 (£99,500) as part of the inaugural Donald Windham-Sandy M Campbell Literature Prizes.

The recipients were announced at Yale University on 4 March, but will not receive their awards until 10 September. The only criteria for selection is “outstanding literary achievement” and the prize is open to “English-language writers at all stages of their careers from any country in the world.” The full list of recipients can be found here.

The prize fund is drawn from the combined estates of Sandy M Campbell, an actor and critic who died in 1988, and Donald Windham, the novelist and memoirist who passed away in 2010. The prize will be administered by Yale University. Both wrote fiction and criticism, and acknowledged the freedom financial independence brought them throughout the course of their careers. Windham received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1960.

Windham’s novel, The Dog Star (1950), was reviewed favourably by John Richardson in the New Statesman, and was celebrated by Andre Gidé and Thomas Mann. In his introduction to Windham’s The Warm Country, E M Forster wrote, “To my mind, the most important thing about [Windham] is that he believes in warmth. He knows that human beings are not statues but contain flesh and blood and a heart.”

One recipient, the South African-born novelist Zoë Wicomb lives in Glasgow, and is Emeritus Professor of Creative Writing in the School of Humanities. She spoke of her surprise upon hearing about the award:

For a minor writer like myself, this is a validation I would never have dreamt of. I am overwhelmed – and deeply grateful for this generous prize. It will keep me for several years – and it will speed up the writing too, since I can now afford to go away when the first draft proves difficult to produce in my own house.

James Salter’s long-awaited new novel, All That Is, will be published in April by Picador.

James Salter. Photograph: Lana Rys.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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That’s no moth, it’s a wisp of delight on the wing

In recent years, some of the most beautiful moths have either died out here or are now only rare summer visitors.

Many years ago, I was a volunteer moth-hunter. I wasn’t a collector (I’ve always been puzzled by the impulse to capture a live creature, gas it and then pin its motionless corpse to a board); I was just another helping hand for a number of surveys aimed at estimating the variety and size of local populations. At the same time, I was working at one of Cambridge University’s zoology field stations, an idyllic smallholding just off the Huntingdon Road, where my boss, Gerry, bred cockroaches, locusts, tobacco moths and other insects for study purposes.

I was the merest factotum at that facility, a rather feckless boy taken on to tend the gardens and glasshouses, but Gerry did his best to include me in the more interesting work, including his daily, highly security-conscious visits to the tobacco moths, which were kept under dark netting in a double-walled building within the complex.

At that time, as I recall, you needed a letter from the head of zoology to hold a key to the tobacco moth house, and government documentation was required by anyone seeking  to transport the creatures – because tobacco moths are potentially devastating pests of any commercial crop that belongs to the Solanaceae (nightshades) family; and because these include potatoes, tomatoes and peppers, we had to be extremely careful not to release these insects into the wild. For me, however, they were a source of wonder and a dark, almost Gothic pleasure.

An even greater source of wonder was to set up a moth trap and count the various species that drifted into the light – necessary work to estimate loss of species, changes in distribution and migration patterns. (Some moths – the hummingbird hawk-moth, for instance – can travel very long distances.) Moth losses rarely get the column inches reserved for birds or butterflies, but 62 British species in total became extinct during the 20th century and a further 81 are gravely endangered.

In recent years, some of the most beautiful moths – gorgeous creatures such as the orange upperwing, the bordered Gothic, the Brighton wainscot and the stout dart – have either died out here or are now only rare summer visitors. At the same time, species that have never been recorded before in these islands are taking up residence in parts of southern England – a sign of climate change, perhaps.

I am not an entomologist, nor have I ever been one. Nevertheless, insects – especially the larger moths – have brought me a great deal of pleasure over the years. Even the names are cause for delight. “Garden tiger” and “snout” are self-explanatory, but who came up with “Brighton wainscot” for an exquisitely beautiful creature that looks like nothing so much as a tiny bride in her wedding gown, or “Clifden nonpareil” for that astonishing specimen whose underwing – a very dark blue, fringed with silvery white and streaked all the way across with a sky-blue stripe – is actually a defence mechanism, startling any predator that might descend upon it with a riot of unexpected colour?

Meanwhile, even though many of the nocturnal moths are subtler in hue, there is a delicacy to them when in flight – the faint, sometimes tiny wisps of what might easily be myrrh or chrism on the wing – that makes a night in the woods all the more enchanting. Back in my surveying days, they seemed so abundant that I didn’t mind watching the one bat that would circle the street lamp outside my window, picking the papery morsels from the warm glow of it.

Now, though, I worry: the losses of these magical creatures have come to seem too much to bear, especially as the reasons for their extinction – loss of habitat being the main culprit – could be so easily avoided.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism