PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

This is one of the 223 lists we use to generate our main The Greatest Books list.

  • How German Is It by Walter Abish

    This novel explores the impact of World War II on Germany's national identity through the eyes of Ulrich Hargenau, a man whose father was executed for plotting against Hitler. As Ulrich returns to his hometown, he grapples with the tension between Germany's new democratic ideals and its Nazi past. The book delves into themes of guilt, memory, and the struggle to reconcile personal and national history.

  • The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley

    This novel centers around John Washington, an African-American historian, who returns to his hometown in Pennsylvania to care for his dying stepfather. During his stay, he becomes obsessed with uncovering the truth about the mysterious death of 13 runaway slaves, including his own ancestor, in Chaneysville. His relentless search for answers becomes a journey of self-discovery as he grapples with the history of racism, his personal relationships, and his own identity.

  • Seaview by Toby Olson

    "Seaview" follows a group of friends who are drawn together by a shared tragedy. Set in rural New England, the narrative explores their shared past, the secrets they keep, and the ways in which they cope with their grief. The story is told through the perspective of a Vietnam War veteran, his lover, and their friends, all of whom are dealing with their own personal traumas. This book is a poignant exploration of friendship, love, loss, and the human capacity for resilience.

  • Sent for You Yesterday by John Edgar Wideman

    The book is a poignant tale set in Homewood, Pittsburgh, which explores themes of love, loss, and the power of memory. The narrative revolves around a trio of characters - Albert Wilkes, a charismatic but troubled musician who returns home after a seven-year absence; Lucy, the woman he left behind, and her brother Carl who has always looked up to Albert. As they navigate their complex relationships and personal demons, the story delves into the historical and societal realities of the African-American community in the 20th century.

  • The Barracks Thief by Tobias Wolff

    Set in an army base in Washington during the Vietnam War, this book follows three young paratroopers who are trying to navigate their way through the complexities of war, manhood, and their personal lives. Their experience is further complicated by a series of thefts happening in the barracks, causing suspicion and tension among the soldiers. The novel explores themes of camaraderie, betrayal, and the loss of innocence in a war-torn era.

  • The Old Forest by Peter Taylor

    "The Old Forest" is a collection of short stories set in the American South, primarily in Memphis, Tennessee during the early to mid-20th century. The stories explore themes of social change, class conflict, and personal identity. The title story revolves around a car accident that leads to a young woman's disappearance and the subsequent search for her, revealing the societal tensions and class divisions within the community.

  • Soldiers in Hiding by Richard Wiley

    Soldiers in Hiding is a narrative set in Japan during World War II, revolving around three American jazz musicians who are trapped in the country during the war. The story explores their experiences, the cultural differences they encounter, and the personal transformations they undergo to survive in a hostile environment. The novel is a profound exploration of identity, survival, and the human capacity to adapt and change in extraordinary circumstances.

  • World's End by T. C. Boyle

    "World's End" is a multigenerational saga that takes place in upstate New York. The narrative alternates between the 17th century, where a Dutch estate is the setting for a brutal power struggle between a master and his rebellious servant, and the 1960s, where a young man struggles with his family's past and his own place in the world. The book explores themes of power, class, and the cyclical nature of history.

  • Dusk by James Salter

    "Dusk" is a collection of short stories that explore the complexities of human relationships and the fleeting nature of life. The stories delve into the lives of various characters including a pilot, a soldier, and a painter, among others, each grappling with their own personal struggles and experiences. The narratives are imbued with themes of love, loss, regret, and the relentless passage of time, showcasing the author's ability to capture the nuanced emotions and realities of the human condition.

  • Billy Bathgate by E. L. Doctorow

    "Billy Bathgate" is a historical novel set in the 1930s that follows the life of a teenage boy from the Bronx who becomes involved with a notorious mobster and his gang. The protagonist, Billy, is taken under the wing of the gang leader, and the novel provides a detailed look into the world of organized crime during the Great Depression. The story is filled with violence, love, and the struggle for power, all seen through the eyes of a young boy trying to navigate his way through this dangerous world.

  • Philadelphia fire by John Edgar Wideman

    This novel is a fictional account of the real-life 1985 bombing in Philadelphia that destroyed a predominantly black neighborhood. The story is told from the perspective of a writer who returns to his hometown to try to make sense of the tragedy. The narrative explores themes of race, poverty, and the destructive power of the state, while also delving into the personal trauma and guilt felt by the protagonist. The novel is a poignant exploration of the lasting impact of violence and the struggle for justice and understanding.

  • Mao II by Don DeLillo

    "Mao II" is a novel that explores the life of a reclusive novelist who hasn't been seen in public for many years. The protagonist is drawn out of his seclusion when he becomes involved in an international crisis involving a hostage situation in Beirut. The book delves into themes of terrorism, mass culture, and the power of the written word, while examining the relationship between the individual artist and the collective society.

  • Postcards by E. Annie Proulx

    "Postcards" is a novel about the hardships and struggles of the Blood family, who live in rural New England. After accidentally killing his girlfriend, the eldest son, Loyal, flees the family farm, sending postcards to his family as he travels across the country. Each postcard triggers a new chapter of the story, revealing the challenges and changes each family member experiences. The novel explores themes of guilt, loss, change, and the harsh realities of rural life.

  • Operation Shylock by Philip Roth

    In this intriguing novel, the protagonist, a famous writer, travels to Israel to cover the trial of a former Nazi war criminal. While there, he encounters a man who is his doppelgänger and who has been using his fame to promote a controversial political agenda, including the idea that Jews should abandon Israel and return to Europe. The narrative explores themes of identity, Jewish history, and the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, all while blurring the line between fiction and reality.

  • Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

    Set in the 1950s on the fictional San Piedro Island in the northern Puget Sound region of the state of Washington, the plot revolves around the trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, a Japanese American accused of murdering Carl Heine, a respected fisherman in the close-knit community. The trial really serves as a means of exploring the inter-ethnic tensions of the post-WWII era, as flashbacks reveal the shared history of the island's residents including the forced internment of its Japanese population during the war. The novel also delves into the love affair between Ishmael Chambers, a local reporter, and Hatsue Miyamoto, Kabuo's wife.

  • Independence Day by Richard Ford

    "Independence Day" is a story about a middle-aged real estate agent named Frank Bascombe, who is going through a mid-life crisis during the Fourth of July weekend. The novel delves into Frank's struggles with his career, his troubled relationship with his son, his romantic life, and his existential questions about life and his place in the world. The narrative is a reflection on the American Dream, the pursuit of happiness, and the complexities of modern life.

  • Women in Their Beds by Gina Berriault

    "Women in Their Beds" is a collection of 35 short stories that offer profound, often heartbreaking glimpses into the lives of a variety of characters. Each story explores themes of love, loss, and the human condition, with a particular focus on the experiences of women. The book is known for its richly detailed prose and deeply empathetic portrayal of its characters.

  • The Bear Comes Home by Rafi Zabor

    "The Bear Comes Home" is a unique tale about a talking, saxophone-playing bear who navigates the human world while yearning for true freedom. The bear, who is also the protagonist, struggles with the complexities of human life, including love, art, and the search for self-identity. As he explores the jazz scene, he is caught between his bear nature and his human-like consciousness, leading to a profound exploration of what it means to be free and to be oneself.

  • The Hours by Michael Cunningham

    The novel is a reimagining of Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" and follows three women from different time periods, each of whom are profoundly affected by Woolf's work. The narrative alternates between Virginia Woolf as she writes "Mrs. Dalloway" in 1923, a 1950s housewife who is reading the novel, and a contemporary woman who is essentially living the life of the titular character. These three storylines eventually converge in a powerful exploration of mental illness, sexuality, and the transcendent power of literature.

  • Waiting by Ha Jin

    "Waiting" is a story set in China during the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, revolving around the life of Lin Kong, a military doctor who is torn between his love for two women. He is stuck in an arranged marriage with his traditional wife in the countryside, while he falls in love with a modern, city nurse. The novel explores his 18-year struggle to divorce his wife and marry his lover, depicting the clash between traditional and modern Chinese culture, personal desires, and societal expectations.

  • The Human Stain by Philip Roth

    The Human Stain is a novel that explores the life of Coleman Silk, a classics professor in a small New England town who is forced to retire after accusations of racism. The story delves into Silk's personal history, revealing that he is a light-skinned African American who has been passing as a Jewish man for most of his adult life. His affair with a much younger, illiterate janitor further scandalizes the community. The novel examines themes of identity, race, and the destructive power of public shaming.

  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

    In an unnamed South American country, a lavish birthday party is thrown for a powerful businessman, with a famous opera singer as the guest of honor. The party is interrupted by a group of terrorists who take everyone hostage, demanding the release of their imprisoned comrades. As weeks turn into months, the hostages and their captors form unexpected bonds. The story explores the relationships that develop under these extraordinary circumstances, and the transformative power of music and love.

  • The Caprices by Sabina Murray

    "The Caprices" is a collection of short stories that explore the impact of the Pacific Theater of World War II on both soldiers and civilians. The book delves into the horrors of war, the cultural clashes, the deep-seated racism, and the human capacity for both cruelty and compassion. Each story provides a different perspective, giving a nuanced and deeply affecting portrayal of a complex and devastating period in history.

  • The Early Stories by John Updike

    "The Early Stories" is a compilation of short stories that provide a vivid depiction of post-war America. The narratives cover a wide range of topics, including love, marriage, death, and faith, all told through the experiences of the ordinary middle-class citizen. The stories are praised for their insightful exploration of human nature and the complexities of everyday life.

  • War Trash by Ha Jin

    The novel is a fictional memoir of a Chinese soldier who is captured during the Korean War and spends several years in American POW camps. He struggles to survive in the brutal conditions and navigate the political rivalries among the prisoners, while holding onto the hope of repatriation and the fear of being labeled a traitor by his own country. The narrative explores themes of loyalty, survival, and the human cost of war.

  • The March by E. L. Doctorow

    "The March" is a historical fiction novel that follows the destructive journey of General William Tecumseh Sherman's Union army through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina during the American Civil War. The narrative is told from multiple perspectives, including those of slaves, soldiers, civilians, and Sherman himself. The book explores the chaos, violence, and often arbitrary nature of war, as well as its profound effects on individuals and societies. It also delves into the complexities of the human condition and the struggle for survival amidst chaos.

  • Everyman by Philip Roth

    "Everyman" is a profound exploration of the common human experience as it recounts the life of its unnamed protagonist. The book explores themes of mortality, regret, and the human condition through the lens of an everyman character. The protagonist's journey through life, with all its joys, sorrows, achievements, and failures, is a contemplation on aging, death, and the inevitable decline of the body. The narrative is a stark and unflinching examination of the human experience, offering a poignant meditation on the nature of life, death, and humanity.

  • The Great Man by Kate Christensen

    "The Great Man" is a novel that revolves around the life of a renowned painter, Oscar Feldman, who was known for his portraits of nude women. The story is told through the perspectives of the women in his life, including his wife, his mistress, and his sister, after his death. As two competing biographers try to document his life, the women reflect on their relationships with him, revealing a complex man who was both a loving father and a serial adulterer. The novel explores themes of art, love, infidelity, and the ways in which people are remembered after their death.

  • Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

    "Netherland" is a post-9/11 novel set in New York City, which explores the life of a Dutch banker named Hans. After his wife and son move back to London, Hans becomes immersed in the world of cricket, where he befriends a charismatic Trinidadian named Chuck Ramkissoon who dreams of building a cricket stadium in the city. The novel is a meditation on the American Dream, identity, and the immigrant experience, all set against the backdrop of a city and a country grappling with a new reality.

  • War Dances by Sherman Alexie

    "War Dances" is a collection of short stories and poems that explore the lives of Native Americans in contemporary society. The narratives delve into various themes such as identity, culture, family, love, and loss. The stories are filled with humor, heartbreak, and wisdom, painting a vivid picture of the unique struggles and experiences faced by modern Native Americans.

  • The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg: Stories by Deborah Eisenberg

    This book is a collection of short stories that delve into the human psyche, exploring themes of love, loss, and the complexities of life. The stories, written with an acute understanding of human nature, are set against a variety of backdrops, from urban landscapes to more exotic locations. Each tale presents complex characters grappling with their personal dilemmas, providing a deep and insightful look into their lives. The author's unique narrative style and evocative descriptions add depth to these stories, creating a captivating reading experience.

  • The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

    "The Buddha in the Attic" is a historical novel that tells the story of Japanese picture brides migrating to America in the early 20th century. It follows their journey from their traditional homes in Japan to their new lives in California, their struggles with language barriers, cultural differences, and harsh working conditions. The book also explores their experiences during World War II when they and their American-born children were taken to internment camps. The narrative is presented in a collective first-person voice, providing a chorus of the women's viewpoints.

  • Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

    "Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club" is a collection of seven short stories, all of which are connected by the Kentucky Club, a bar in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The stories explore various themes such as love, loss, addiction, and identity, and feature a range of characters, from a young man coming to terms with his sexuality to an older man reflecting on his past relationships. The author uses the backdrop of the U.S.-Mexico border to highlight the complexities and struggles of the characters' lives.

  • We are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

    The novel follows the story of a woman named Rosemary who grew up in an unusual family, with her parents being behavioral scientists and her sister being a chimpanzee, part of an experiment her parents were conducting. As she grows older, Rosemary grapples with the loss of her sister, who was sent away when she was five, and her brother, who left the family due to the emotional turmoil caused by the experiment. The book explores themes of memory, family, and the ethical treatment of animals.

  • Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish

    This novel tells the story of a U.S. Army veteran suffering from PTSD and a Chinese Muslim immigrant, both struggling to survive in the harsh realities of New York City. Their lives intersect and they form a relationship, trying to make sense of their past traumas, navigate the complexities of their present, and find hope for a better future. The book provides an intense, gritty portrayal of life on the fringes of society, highlighting issues of immigration, class, and the human cost of war.

  • Delicious Foods by James Hannaham

    This novel tells the story of a young boy named Eddie who is left to fend for himself after his mother, a widow and crack addict, disappears. Eddie's mother has been lured into a corrupt and brutal farming operation, where workers are treated like slaves and kept addicted to drugs. The narrative alternates between Eddie's desperate search for his mother and his mother's struggles within the exploitative system, both of them battling against the destructive influence of addiction and systemic racism.

  • Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

    This novel explores the lives of two families in New York City during the 2008 financial crisis. One family is a wealthy couple who live a luxurious lifestyle due to their Wall Street connections, while the other family is a pair of Cameroonian immigrants who are trying to make ends meet. As the financial crisis hits, both families face challenges that test their relationships, their dreams, and their understanding of the American Dream.

  • Improvement by Joan Silber

    "Improvement" is a novel that explores the interconnectedness of human lives across time and space. It tells the story of a single mother in New York who is drawn into a smuggling scheme with her Turkish boyfriend, which has far-reaching consequences. The narrative then branches out to tell the stories of the people indirectly affected by her actions, including her aunt, a truck driver, and a couple in Germany. The novel is a meditation on the ways in which our actions, both big and small, can have a ripple effect on the lives of others.

  • Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi

    "Call Me Zebra" is a novel about a young woman, who is the last in a line of self-proclaimed "anarchists, atheists, and autodidacts," embarking on a grand intellectual journey. After her father's death, she retraces the path they took as refugees from Iran to New York, immersing herself in literature and philosophy to cope with her grief. The protagonist's eccentric perspective and her passionate, often humorous, engagement with the works of literature make for a unique exploration of exile, art, and identity.

  • Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis

    "Sea Monsters" is a captivating narrative that follows a 17-year-old girl who runs away from her comfortable life in Mexico City to join a group of Ukrainian dwarves who have escaped from a Soviet circus. Set in the 1980s, the story is a surreal exploration of freedom, self-discovery, and the blurred lines between reality and imagination. The protagonist's journey to a beach town in Oaxaca becomes an exploration of her inner world as much as the outer one, revealing her thoughts, dreams, and fears in a deeply introspective manner.

About this list

PEN/Faulkner, 40 Books

The PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction is awarded annually by the PEN/Faulkner Foundation to the author of the best American work of fiction that year. The winner receives US $15,000 and each of four runners-up receives US $5000. The foundation brings the winner and runners-up to Washington, D.C. to read from their works at the Great Hall of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

The PEN/Faulkner Foundation is an outgrowth of William Faulkner's generosity in donating his 1949 Nobel Prize winnings, "to establish a fund to support and encourage new fiction writers." Mary Lee Settle was also one of the founders after controversy at the 1979 National Book Award.[1] It is affiliated with the writers' organization International PEN.
The award was first given in 1980.

Added about 10 years ago.

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