When God said, “Be fruitful and multiply,” He could have been talking about literary prizes. Lo and behold, into this crowded universe, just days before the Man Booker and the National Book Awards and the first Kirkus Prizes are announced, comes word of the creation of another new award: the George W. Hunt Prize. This $25,000 contest, sponsored by America magazine and Saint Thomas More Chapel at Yale Univeristy, seeks to recognize the finest literary work of Roman Catholic intelligence and imagination.
The prize is being funded by Fay Vincent, the lawyer and former Major League Baseball commissioner.
Hunt (1937-2011) was a priest who earned a PhD in literature and from 1984-1998 served as editor of America, the weekly magazine published by the Jesuits. This new annual prize named in Hunt’s honor will consider works in a variety of genres, including journalism, fiction, poetry, drama, music, memoir, biography, history, art criticism and academic scholarship. The recommended subjects, drawn from Hunt’s own interests, include Catholicism and civic life, Catholicism and arts & letters, spirituality, U.S. sports, U.S. history, jazz or classical music, American film and drama and spirituality.
All literary contests wrestle with slippery problems of value, but contests focused on particular categories face special challenges. Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, for instance, raises the issue of whether novels by women should be considered apart from novels by men. The judges for the National Book Critics Circle award for criticism must determine each year exactly what a book of criticism is.
Literary awards associated with particular faiths are even more challenged to “judge righteous judgment.” The Jewish Book Awards consider any book that “deals with aspects of Judaism and Jewish life.” The guidelines note: “A book written by a non-Jewish author is eligible if it has Jewish content” — a statement worthy of Talmudic debate. The evangelical Christian Book Awards, meanwhile, welcome only books that include “explicit Christian content and an overtly Christian message.” Nominated books must not contradict a belief in the Trinity, the infallibility of the Bible, the Virgin Birth, the Atonement, the Resurrection, heaven and the eternal damnation of sinners.
For the new Hunt Prize, nominees must write in English and be no older than 45. (That age limit excludes many of the country’s most celebrated writers who are Catholic, such as Alice McDermott, Tobias Wolff, Mary Karr and Mary Gordon.) Beyond that, though, the qualifications grow considerably more complex. The Hunt Prize guidelines state that each entrant “should be familiar with the Roman Catholic tradition” and “should be a person of sound moral character and reputation and must not have published works that are manifestly atheistic or morally offensive.”
Heaven help the judges charged with divining which authors are of sound character and whose books are morally offensive. The juries I’ve served on have had enough trouble trying to determine if a particular book is a biography or a work of history. Throw in the state of the author’s soul and deliberations could drag on till the last trumpet sounds.
But Matt Malone, the editor in chief of America magazine, doesn’t seem worried about these eligibility standards. “We’re not requiring that this person be of exemplary moral character,” he says with a laugh. “The guidelines are created to provide maximum discretion. There are no strict doctrinal limits. The committee, in evaluating the person’s performance, will give greater weight to a person whose works are inspired by the Catholic tradition or that examines the intersection of art and the Catholic faith. But it’s not a requirement that a person be a baptized Roman Catholic.”
What exactly Catholic writing is may be a mystery that passeth all understanding.
“Among Catholics and Catholic writers, it’s an open question,” Malone admits, “a very difficult question to answer. We’re just right now at the 50th anniversary of Flannery O’Connor’s death. When people think of something in the Catholic literary arts, they think of Flannery O’Connor. And yet there were certainly people at the time who thought her work wasn’t Catholic because it wasn’t doctrinal.”
Malone is reluctant to circumscribe the judges’ thinking in any way, but pressed to articulate a modern sense of Catholic literature, he says, “What’s key is a kind of radical appreciation for the radical nature of faith — utterly counter cultural; an appreciation for the essential goodness.”
Robert Beloin, chaplain of Saint Thomas More Chapel, which is co-administering this prize, takes a similarly wide view.
“We’re trying to promote new creative thinking,” Beloin says. “Catholic theology is a very wide umbrella — or at least it’s supposed to be.” He hopes to recognize an author who is “trying to write things that are true — to bring a fresh language to theology, to bring real creativity to intellectual life and Catholic imagination.”
What, then, would fall outside that range? What about — as a hypothetical case — Mary McCarthy’s brilliant memoir, “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood”?
Neither Beloin nor Malone will speculate about the eligibility of particular written works — past or present. But Beloin mentions Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” the photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine that incited controversy in the late 1980s. “That is not consistent with Roman Catholic tradition,” he says. “Good art is consistent with Catholicism and the Catholic intellectual tradition.”
The first winner of the Hunt Prize will be honored next year at a ceremony at Yale University, where he or she will deliver a lecture. That lecture will later be printed in America magazine.
“Here is an opportunity to introduce somebody to the world in a really dramatic fashion,” Malone says. “The idea behind this prize is that you may not have heard of somebody before they win the Hunt, but once they do, you’re going to hear from them for the rest of their lives.”