Fourth Genre Steinberg Essay Prize

2019 Winner Announced!

The 2019 Fourth Genre Steinberg Essay Prize winner is “When to Tell Someone You Went to Prison” by Marco Verdoni!

Judge Brenda Miller shares these comments about the winning essay:

In “When to Tell Someone You Went to Prison,” we become privy to a life formed behind bars that bears little resemblance to our preconceptions. The author elegantly describes his experience from the perspective of release, his feeling that “I’m somehow always behind and that I’ll never catch up.” His story is important and illuminating.

“When to Tell Someone You Went to Prison” will appear in Fourth Genre 22.1 (Spring 2020), which will be available at AWP.

Submission Guidelines

  • Reading period: January 1–March 15
  • Submit entries during reading period at
  • Reading fee: $20 (U.S.) for each individual submission (multiple submissions accepted)
  • The author’s name or contact information should appear nowhere in the manuscript, including headers, footers, and title  pages. Any names that appear in the manuscript that could be used to identify the author or the author’s affiliations should be given a pseudonym for the purposes of the contest, but will be corrected for publication.
  • 6,000 word limit
  • Current Michigan State University students, faculty, and staff are not eligible to enter
  • Winner receives $1,000 prize
  • Winner and runner-up (if applicable) announced at the end of May on the Fourth Genre website and the Fourth Genre facebook page

2018 Winner (14th Annual Prize)

The 2018 Fourth Genre Steinberg Essay Prize winner is Erica Berry for her essay “Like A Shipwreck” and the runner up is Annie Sheppard for her piece “We at Old Birds Welcome Messages from God, even if Unverifiable.”

Judge Robin Hemley shares his comments about the two winning essays:

Winner: Erica Berry, “Like A Shipwreck”

This is a gorgeous braided essay on how we manage to preserve our selves and our histories in the face of global catastrophe.  Set against the backdrop of World War Two and artist Marcel Duchamp carrying the history of his artmaking in miniature with him while on the run, the essay stitches together other elements and examples of catastrophe and preservation, from his/her own grandparents packing up their most precious belongings in advance of a wildfire encroaching upon their Montana home, to the self-conscious cataloging of artists and writers. What I love about this essay is how confidently and subtly it builds a central metaphor that is finally about hope and resilience in the face of despair and loss. Likewise, the writer ends the essay on the perfect note, an accomplishment in itself.

Runner up: Annie Sheppard, “We at Old Birds Welcome Messages from God, even if Unverifiable”

What begins as a whimsical exploration of lake monsters and other unverifiable creatures and treasures evolves into taxonomies of lost creatures that might or might not be extinct, starting with the “Lord God Bird” and ending with the narrator’s own father, declining in health as he inches towards death. I love this kind of essay, one that starts out seemingly lighthearted and then twists the knife when the reader least expects it.  Are birds messengers of God?  If so, what is the message?  Are the old birds in our families, those who would refuse to acknowledge their own transgressions, and who haven’t in a sense been sighted in years, able to fly off finally beyond care and atonement? The inventive tone and language, the attitude of the essay, belie the serious questions it asks. Who’s watching us, if anyone? What are our responsibilities to ourselves and others when accountability seems elusive? Can what seemed extinct be located again, not gone forever but in deep hiding?

“Like A Shipwreck” will be published in Fourth Genre 21.1 (February 2019).

2017 Winner (13th Annual Prize)

We’re very happy to announce Sue Burton’s “Box Set” as winner of the 2017 contest. Here’s what Faith Adiele (this year’s judge) had to say in choosing Burton’s essay:

“’Box Set’ is a beautiful argument for the lyric essay, demonstrating how the form marries poetry and inquiry to tackle important subject matter, both historic and contemporary, personal and political. The typography and title offer sly commentary on the institutional control exerted over women’s bodies recurring throughout history, while the formal patterning performs how the narrator’s life and work is haunted by unanswered family questions. The essay achieves orature, a masterfully woven tapestry of voices culled from letters, newspaper clippings, whispered rumor, family questions, personal testimony, legal documents, musings.”

“Box Set” will appear in Issue 20.1 in February, available at AWP in Tampa in April.

2016 Winner (12th Annual Prize)

We are excited to announce that Molly Gallentines’s essay, “Powder House,” has been chosen as the winner of the 12th annual Fourth Genre Steinberg Essay Prize! Judge Ned Stuckey-French shares his thoughts on the winning essay:

“Powder House” is an important, moving, fascinating, and beautiful essay. It’s also wonderfully odd, weaving together as it does meditations about St. Mark’s Place, the War on Terror, cookbooks, nineteenth century glue baron Peter Cooper, LBJ’s “Daisy” ad from the 1964 election, W. H. Auden, and the origins of Jell-O, among other things. There is a weird and comic narrative in which the author and her friend Brandon film a movie of themselves trying to make an orange gelatin mold using a Revolutionary Era recipe that calls for hand-ground hartshorn and isinglass, a collagen derived from the dried swim bladders of fish. As it happens, they are grating their deer antlers in the kitchen of Brandon’s apartment at 77 St. Mark’s Place, the same apartment building where the exiled Leon Trotsky wrote for the Russian revolutionary paper Novy Mir and Auden lived for the last 20 years of his life. But “Powder House” is a narrative essay mainly in the Montaignean sense. We don’t care so much about whether the gelatin will set properly. What pulls us along is the story of a mind thinking. Where will the next digression take us? What new connection will this distinctly American essay make? What more will we learn about history, place, memory, beauty, and art? A lot more as it turns out. I admire “Powder House” and its author very much.

“Powder House” will be published in Fourth Genre 19.1 (February 2017).

This year’s runner-up is Wilfredo Pascual with the essay “Terminus.”

2015 Winner (11th Annual Prize)

Winner: Kaitlyn Teer, “Ossification”

Judge: Kate Carroll de Gutes

Judge’s comments:

The narrative in “Ossification” really held me—skeletal and familial without being trite, it’s not just another grandparent narrative.  I was surprised, even though the title should have alerted me, when I realized the section headers were actually the spinal markers, and I immediately read the entire piece again, mapping each section’s content to the bony prominences of their headers.  I also liked—and I know Judith would have, too—the writer’s use of digression, from science catalogs to black ice to the continuity of standing at the sink doing dishes.  Judith believed strongly in digression. Here’s a bit of her take on it in a piece about lyric essay she wrote for Seneca Review:

“Too bad,” said my wonderful professor, “that you have so many good ideas, and no vehicle with which to express them.” Well, I had a vehicle, but it just wasn’t the one he recognized—the language of the scholarly article. It just didn’t dot the i’s or cross the t’s or proceed logically on its way to its point. It circled and spiraled; it doubled back; it digressed and prodded; it spoke in tongues. And yet I knew I knew what I knew—knew it in ways that, if I thought to remember, sounded a bit like my father’s way of knowing something that he then had to prove. But since there is no such thing as “proof” in literature, it seemed to me that all I had to do was find a way to show the direction of my thoughts. Demonstrate them. Point the reader toward my inconclusive conclusions.

“Ossification” does this beautifully.  It spirals like a spine with scoliosis, twisting ’round until the reader has a full picture, but no answers to the mystery of the body, the heart, and the families that hold both.

“Ossification” appears in Fourth Genre 18.1 (February 2016).

2014 Winners (10th Annual Prize)

Judge: Robert Root
Winner: David Zoby, “My Brother Arrives in Kansas”
Runner-up: Beth Richards, “Fight”

Both appear in issue 17.1, in print February 2015.

About Zoby’s essay, Root wrote:

This segmented narrative is well developed throughout. It has a thorough sense of place, a clear contrast between the narrator and his brother, and a complicated portrait of their relationship. The narrator’s persona is marked by reaction to the brother’s behavior, and by the end of the essay the reader has insight into the narrator in a way that exposes his shortcomings. This is all deftly handled and, though readers in Kansas may not agree with the narrator’s view of it, they will recognize how self-revealing he has been even as he wrestles with his sense of himself in light of his brother’s personality.

About Richards’ essay, Root wrote:

Working with a central metaphor tying each segment to a phrase or to jargon used in reference to boxing, the narrator gives us a complex sense of persona, balanced and insightful. There are flashes of wry humor, irony, and self-knowledge and other characters are distinct and well differentiated. There are considerable losses in this essay, considerable conflicts, but the essay eschews mournfulness and the prose makes each scene come alive. Narrative and reflective elements are well balanced and the progression of the scenes has a cumulative impact.

2013 Winners (9th Annual Prize)

Judge: Scott Russell Sanders
Winner: Patricia Park, “How to Run a Supermarket”

What begins as a wry how-to manual on running a supermarket opens into a study in immigrant-family dynamics, a sketch of social change in a Brooklyn neighborhood, a lament about the poor fit between formal education and retail work, and a coming-of-age story, all deftly braided together by a thoroughly engaging narrator….The second-person narrative voice, which can easily become stilted, is handled here with wit and skill, obliquely revealing a transformative personal history while telling us, with an insider’s precise knowledge, what it’s like to serve the picky, penny-pinching, by turns infuriating and mystifying public.

Patricia Park’s essay appeared in issue 16.1 in February 2014.

2013 Winners (8th Annual Prize)

Judge: Marcia Aldrich
Winner: Anne Penfield, “The Half-Life”
Runner-up: Elena Passarello, “Harpy”

Award-winning essayist and former Fourth Genre editor Marcia Aldrich, judge for the 2012 contest, wrote about “The Half-Life”:

This is a quiet essay, written with restraint and a steady focus, and its emotional impact accumulates and is devastating by the end. The essay is rooted in the narration of the day, the third day that her husband has gone missing, by taking us through all the tasks she alone must attend to in his absence—getting children fed and off to school, managing the range of animals on the small farm, negotiating the mess she finds herself in. Her husband has survived his military deployment and returned home. However, his battle with alcoholism has led him to go missing in his civilian life. The writer slips in the emotional anguish as cleanly and quietly as an expert diver splits the water on entry. Anguish ferments under the surface of the essay, doing its steady damage up to the end. Sometimes these quiet assassin essays get overlooked among the flashier writing. This one stayed with me for days and drew me back to it.

Honorable Mentions:
Marya Passarello, “Strip”
Robyn Richey Piz, “Altered State”
Kathryn Winograd, “Of Wind and Fire”
Elizabeth Mosier, “The Pit and the Page”
Neal Snidow, “Meter to the Black
Daisy Hernández, “Stories She Tells Us”
Emily Carr, “Membership (as the Commercial Says) Has its Privileges”
Lee Reilly, “The Relative Nature of Things”

The winning essay and the runner-up appear in Fourth Genre 15.1, spring 2013.

2012 Winners (7th Annual Prize)

Judge: Ryan Van Meter
Winner: Jennifer De Leon, “The White Space”
Runner-up: Damian Van Denburgh, “The Wish to Be a Red Indian”

Honorable Mentions:
Jacob Steele, “The Uniform”
Jacob Appel, “Livery”
Eileen Reynolds,  “My Pronoun Problem—And Ya’ll’s”
Kathryn Winograd, “Heresies of the Holy”
Nina Yun, “Kimchee”
Matthew Frank, “Silk, Allergies, Sisters, and Incompleteness”
Dan Roche, “The Expressionists: The Intimate Craft of Making Eyes”
Greta Schuler,  “Empty Boxes”

2011 Winners (6th Annual Prize)

Judge: Michael Steinberg
Winner: Sandell Morse,  “Circling My Father”
Finalist: Andrew Hood, “Genesis”

Special Mentions:
Lucas Mann, “The Cockroach and the Essayist”
Jessica Wilbanks, “The Father of Disorder”
Benjamin Busch, “Houses Without Cellars”
Marsha McGregor, “Human, Swimming”
Sarah Gorham,  “The Shape of Fear”

Honorable Mentions:
Felicia Rose Chavez, “Between Shock and Knife”
Priscilla Kinter, “Good Idea #3: peanut butter”
Annie Nilsson, “Ghost Story”
Anthony D’Aries, “The Language of Men”

2010 Winners (5th Annual Prize)

Judge: Jocelyn Bartkevicious
Winner: Megan Nix, “Swim, Memory”
Finalist: Josh MacIvor-Anderson, “How I Learned The Gospel By Heart And Stopped Saying Damn”

Honorable Mentions:
Paula Brancato, “Red Hot Broken Girl”
Judy Copeland,  “Louisville, 1953″
Emily Hipchen, “Solving for P”
Irene Keliher, “Putting Girls on the Map”
Daisy Levy, “Middle Ground”
Kim Liao, “Bodies in Motion”
Jeremy Lloyd, “End of the Road”
Daniel Roche, “Emptying Gary’s Garage”

2009 Winners (4th Annual Prize)

Winner: Kathryn Wilder, “The Last Cows”
Finalist: Sara Lippmann,  “The Dying Tradition”

Honorable Mentions:
Charlotte E. Sullivan, “This is My Body”
Laura Newton, “Nothing Like We Planned”
Sonya Huber, “Homage to a Bridge”

2008 Winners (3rd Annual Prize)

Winner: Nedra Rogers, “Mammalian”
Runner-Up: Casey Flemin,”Take Me with You”

Jennifer Henderson, “The Furniture of Memory”
Kate Ellis, “Snakeblood”

Honorable Mentions:
Kristen Cosby, “Sulia”
Emily Lupita Plum, “Her Mexico Blurs”
Vina Kay, “River of Names”
Jane Satterfield, “Looking for Some Action”
Arthur Saltzman, “Afraid So”
Vanessa Griffin, “Black Raspberry Meditation”
Jo Scott-Coe, “The Recesses of High School”

2007 Winners (2nd Annual Prize)

Winner: Beth Richards, “The Fishing Story”
Runner-Up: Elizabeth Caroline Dodd, “The Scribe in the Woods”

2006 Winners (1st Annual Prize)

Winner:  Melani Martinez,”The Molino
Runner-Up: Mira Bartó, “Gula, Gula–Listen, Listen: Memory and the Map of Childhood”

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