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VCU Cabell First Novelist Award

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About the Award

The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award was established by faculty in VCU’s M.F.A. in Creative Writing Program who had founded VCU’s unique, nationally recognized, year-long novel writing workshop. The prize, originally known as the First Novelist Award, was created in 2002 both to reward excellence and to recognize the creative challenges and business realities of becoming a published author. 

In 2007, VCU Libraries became a partner with the VCU Department of English in offering the award, and helping fund the prize and a fellowship for a graduate student to oversee the award process. When the James Branch Cabell Library Associates began contributing generous financial support, the award was named for James Branch Cabell. 

Rising in prominence, the contest annually attracts roughly 100 novel submissions from publishers of all sizes. Winning novels have been funny or sad, sarcastic or heartrending. Each has moved the judges toward the conclusion that, among the steep competition, its writer has achieved something particularly notable and enduring.

How the Award Works

Selecting the annual winner is a lengthy process. Twice a year, the administrative team sends out a nationwide call for submissions from publishers, editors, agents and writers. Books come in and are made available at VCU’s libraries so that volunteer readers may evaluate them. These rankings and their feedback guide the award committee toward announcing three or four finalists. From that short list, three judges, including the winner of the previous year’s award, select the honoree.

The winning author comes to campus for the annual presentation event, usually held in November. Beyond the large public event usually attended by some 200 people, the author’s visit includes intimate discussions and meetings with creative writing students. Along with the author, others involved in the writing and publishing worlds--typically the author's agent and editor--take part in the campus visit. They participate in a panel discussion at the public reading and Q&A session. The discussion focuses on all aspects of bringing the book to life and include creation, publication and marketing the novel.

Travel expenses to and lodging in Richmond for the author and the additional speakers are provided, and the author receives a $5,000 prize.


The Cabell First Novelist Award is presented on behalf of VCU's M.F.A. in Creative Writing Program. Sponsors include the James Branch Cabell Library AssociatesVCU Libraries, the VCU Department of EnglishBarnes & Noble @ VCU, and the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences.

Award Events

For audio recordings, transcripts, and many other materials pertaining to past Cabell First Novelist events, please visit the VCU-based online journal Blackbird and search for "First Novelist." 

Photographs can be found on VCU Libraries' Flickr.

Winners Gallery