James Branch Cabell

Literary Life and Legacy

VCU Cabell First Novelist Award

VCU Cabell First Novelist Award with compass logo [View Image]Original VCU Cabell First Novelist logo, 2011
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About the Award

The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award honors an outstanding debut novel published in the preceding calendar year. Symbolized by a three-dimensional compass, the award is a tribute to writers who have navigated their way through the maze of imagination and delivered a great read, taking the reader someplace new.

Winning novelists have written books that may be funny or sad, sarcastic or heartrending, but each is powerful enough in its own way to have moved initial readers and final judges toward the conclusion that, among a field of roughly a hundred submissions annually, its writer has achieved something notable and enduring.

How the Award Works

The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award is organized annually by the VCU Department of English and VCU Libraries with the generous support of the James Branch Cabell Library Associates.

The award contest, including screening and final judging, is overseen by the yearly appointed Cabell First Novelist Fellow, a third-year student in the MFA in Creative Writing Program. During the fall semester, a nationwide call for submissions goes out, soliciting debut novels from publishers, editors, agents and writers themselves. MFA students and community readers read, review, and then rank all incoming novels. These rankings result in a long list of twenty novels.

During the spring semester, the Cabell Fellow guides the MFA students through a second round of reading and discussion to reduce the long list to a short list of 10, which is then further reduced to three semifinalists. The last step in the process is the judging, which involves a three-pronged ballot. The MFA students, the First Novelist Committee and the award winner from the previous year each have a single vote to determine the recipient of the award. In the case of a three-way tie, the vote defaults to the MFA students’ selection.

VCU Libraries then organizes the annual event, generally held at James Branch Cabell Library, in which the winning author and two others involved in the writing and publishing worlds, typically the author’s agent and editor, appear at a public reading and Q&A session focusing on the creation, publication and promotion of a first novel. Travel to and lodging in Richmond for the author and the additional speakers are provided, and the author receives a cash prize.

Learn more about submitting a novel for consideration.


VCU Cabell First Novelist Award Winners:

2002: Maribeth Fischer, The Language of Good-bye
2003: Isabel Zuber, Salt
2004: Michael Byers, Long for This World
2005: Lorraine Adams, Harbor
2006: Karen Fisher, A Sudden Country
2007: Peter Orner, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo
2008: Travis Holland, The Archivist’s Story
2009: Deb Olin Unferth, Vacation
2010: Victor Lodato, Mathilda Savitch
2011: David Gordon, The Serialist
2012: Justin Torres, We the Animals
2013: Ramona Ausubel, No One Is Here Except All of Us
2014: Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni
2015: Boris Fishman, A Replacement Life
2016: Angela Flournoy, The Turner House
2017: Jade Chang, The Wangs vs. the World
2018: Hernán Díaz, In the Distance
2019: Ling Ma, Severance
2020: John Englehardt, Bloomland
2021: Raven LeilaniLuster

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