About The Essay Prize

The Essay Prize was founded in 2006 in response to literary awards that champion subject matter in nonfiction, rather than art.

Given each year to the work that best exemplifies the art of essaying—inquiry, experimentation, discovery, and change—the Essay Prize emphasizes the activity of a text, rather than its status as a dispensary of information.

Open to projects in any genre, medium, or form—be it text, film, radio, performance, or other—the Essay Prize intentionally stretches the definition of “essaying” in order to celebrate work that is defined by what it does—the activity that it engages in—rather than what it is.


Nominations for the Prize are made each year by an ever-changing committee of twelve to fifteen writers, filmmakers, radio producers, visual artists, critics, editors, and readers. Each of them selects one essay from the previous year that they most enjoyed and admired, submitting it with a brief paragraph of support. Nominators remain anonymous until the winner of the Prize is announced.

For more information about this year’s nominees for the Essay Prize click here.

You can also view the nominees from previous years here.


Those nominated essays then become the primary texts in a semester-long graduate writing seminar that’s taught at one of a number of American universities. After a series of papers, presentations, and discussions about the essays, the graduate students in the seminar choose the winner of the Prize.

The essay prize box

The Essay Prize is given in tribute to the spirit of generosity, encouragement, and community that essayist Guy Davenport instilled in everyone who knew him and who appreciated his work.

Modeled after Davenport’s own antique letter box, the Essay Prize is handmade by a woodworker in Oxford, Iowa. It’s constructed of solid walnut and inscribed on its inside lid with the recipient’s name and the title of his or her essay.

Each winner is also invited to the University of Iowa to formally present his or her essay, and to speak with the students who selected it for the Prize.

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