Announcing the Finalists for the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

by | Mar 2, 2021 | Award News, Voices from PEN/Faulkner

Judges have selected the five finalists for the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, America’s most prestigious peer-juried literary prize. The finalists are The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw (West Virginia University Press), Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear by Matthew Salesses (Little A), The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe (Alfred A. Knopf), Mother Daughter Widow Wife by Robin Wasserman (Scribner), and Scattered Lights by Steve Wiegenstein (Cornerpost).

2021 PEN-Faulkner Award Finalists Graphic

“Our judges have come up with a diverse, provocative, and inspiring list that will give readers new worlds to plunge into,” said Awards Chair Louis Bayard. “We look forward to recognizing the achievements of these five gifted authors even as we celebrate the enduring value of fiction itself.”

This year’s judges–Charles Finch, Bernice L. McFadden, and Alexi Zentner–considered 419 eligible novels and short story collections by American authors published in the US during the 2020 calendar year. Submissions came from 170 publishing houses, including independent and academic presses.

Finch, McFadden, and Zentner prepared the following statement: “‘When you’re writing,’ said James Baldwin, ‘you’re trying to find out something you don’t know.’ The five finalists for this year’s PEN/Faulkner Award are very different, their dazzling voices restrained, chaotic, tender, and funny in turn. But all five are radical truth-seekers. In their worlds, we return to the most essential questions about how we live and why: the questions that our present moment in history has prompted, too.”

The “first among equals” winner, who will receive $15,000, will be announced on April 6, 2021. The remaining four finalists will each receive an honorarium of $5,000. All five authors–along with inaugural PEN/Faulkner Literary Champion, LeVar Burton–will be honored on May 10 at the 41st Anniversary PEN/Faulkner Award Celebration. Registration for this year’s virtual event, which supports PEN/Faulkner’s programs, is available at this link. You can also purchase this year’s finalists here.


Deesha Philyaw Headshot 2

Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection The Secret Lives of Church Ladies was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction and for the Story Prize (2020/2021). The Secret Lives of Church Ladies focuses on Black women, sex, and the Black church. Deesha is also the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Her work has been listed as Notable in the Best American Essays series, and her writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, McSweeney’s, the Rumpus, Brevity, dead housekeeping, Apogee Journal, Catapult, Harvard Review, ESPN’s the Undefeated, the Baltimore Review, TueNight, Ebony, and Bitch magazines, and various anthologies. Deesha is a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and a past Pushcart Prize nominee for essay writing in Full Grown People.    

Matthew Salesses Headshot 2

Matthew Salesses is the bestselling author of The Hundred-Year Flood, an Amazon Best Book of September and Kindle First pick, an Adoptive Families Best Book of 2015, and a Best Book of the season at Buzzfeed, Refinery29, and Gawker, among others, and Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear, a Best Book of the Year at Forthcoming in 2021 is a craft book, Craft in the Real World, which explores alternative models of craft and the writing workshop, especially for marginalized writers. His previous books include I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying; Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American Masculinity; and The Last Repatriate.

Rufi Thorpe Headshot

Rufi Thorpe received her MFA from the University of Virginia in 2009. She is the author of Dear Fang, with Love and The Girls from Corona del Mar, which was long listed for the 2014 International Dylan Thomas Prize and for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. A native of California, she currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and sons.

Robin Wasserman Headshot

Robin Wasserman is the author of Mother Daughter Widow Wife and Girls on Fire, an NPR and BuzzFeed Best Book of the Year. She is a graduate of Harvard College with a Master’s in the history of science. She lives in Los Angeles, where she writes for television.

Steve Wiegenstein Headshot 2

Steve Wiegenstein is the author of Scattered Lights (2020), a collection of short stories. He also has written three historical novels: The Language of Trees (2017), This Old World (2014), and Slant of Light (2012). Scattered Lights was named by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as one of its 25 favorite books of 2020. Steve grew up in the Ozarks, the setting for his books, and worked there as a newspaper reporter before entering the field of higher education. An avid hiker and canoer, he returns to his home region every chance he gets; he also writes and blogs about rural and Ozarks issues at He has taught journalism, English, and communication for a number of colleges and universities during his career, but is now retired from teaching and writes full-time.

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