News & Politics

New Carla Cohen Literary Prize, First Winners Announced

Earlier this week, the family and close friends of Politics & Prose co-founder Carla Cohen announced a new literary prize in memory of Cohen, who died of cancer in 2010. The Carla Furstenberg Cohen Literary Prize will be judged by two independent juries, one for fiction and the other for non-fiction, both chaired by Claudia’s husband, David Cohen.

The prize will be awarded annually to authors of first or second books, in both fiction and non-fiction.

The 2013 winners, announced at the same time as the establishment of the award, are Anthony Marra, for his first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and David Finkel, for his second book Thank You For Your Service. Each author will receive $5,000, to be presented this year on May 11.

Eligible titles were selected from two special Politics & Prose newsletters (published in the summer and at Christmas) that designate the store’s top picks. Books by new authors  deemed outstanding by Washington Post critics will also be eligible for the prizes.

Marra, a native of Washington, DC who lives in Maryland, and Finkel, a staff reporter at the Washington Post, both know well the

vibrant and fiercely independent bookstore Cohen co-founded with Barbara Meade in year 1984. “When I think of my years in Washington, DC, Politics & Prose looms as largely and grandly as the National Cathedral,” says Marra, “Many of the books that have changed me as a reader, writer, and person came from its shelves. More than any other place, Politics & Prose is where I first learned the magic and value of stories.”

Carla Cohen was known for her keen interest in new authors, many of whom found their first audiences through Politics & Prose. Finkel said that before he had even published his first book (The Good Soldiers) “I would see Carla and think: This is the standard. That person. That look. That seriousness. That intellect. This is whose attention a book will have to earn. It was a thought both inspiring and intimidating. So you can imagine what it was like to find out I would be getting this award.”

Both authors plan to use part of their award proceeds towards research; Finkel will also donate a portion of his to wounded soldiers and their families.

This year’s fiction judges included Meade, Mark LaFramboise, longtime friend of Cohen’s and buyer for the store, and National Book Award-nominated novelist Howard Norman. Nonfiction judges included Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Atkinson, NPR producer Darcy Bacon, and America’s Promise chief John Gomperts. Jurors are representative of readers who have been part of the Politics & Prose community and reflect the values that Carla Cohen brought to the endeavor. (Neither the Cohen family nor the Politics & Prose current owners, Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine, and staff had or will have a veto over the selections.)

“Carla’s legacy lives,” says David Cohen. “I can see Carla thrusting Marra’s and Finkel’s [books] into customers hands and telling them and me, ‘You just have to read these books.’ Who says there’s no future for serious books that dig deeply.”

Marra agrees. “The ‘uncommon understanding’ David referred to is, to my mind, the same as the particular understanding of a single life expressed through story…If it’s a very good book, you might know a made up character more completely than the real people around you.”