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PEN America launches $75,000 book prize, one of the country's biggest

Writers have something new to aspire to: the $75,000 book prize announced Wednesday by PEN America, the literary nonprofit based in New York.

The $75,000 award is named for Jean Stein, the Los Angeles-born author and oral historian.

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Each year beginning in 2017, the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award will be awarded to "a book that has broken new ground and signals strong potential for lasting influence."

The award is clearly meant to recognize a significant work. At $75,000, it is the most lucrative literary award offered by PEN and among the largest in the U.S. The prestigious Man Booker Prize, based in England and now offered internationally, awards $65,000 to a single work of fiction. Other major awards are for bodies of work: the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize, based at Claremont Graduate University, is $100,000; the Neustadt International Prize, based at the University of Oklahoma, awards $50,000; and the new Windham-Campbell prizes, based at Yale, are $150,000.

The Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, by contrast, are each $10,000.

PEN America President Andrew Solomon said the organization was grateful to Stein for sponsoring the award, writing, "The PEN/Jean Stein Book Award will focus global attention on remarkable books that propel experimentation, wit, strength, and the expression of wisdom. As an organization that champions literature¹s power to change the world, PEN is especially pleased to recognize work that honors creative ambition and rejoices in imagination."

Stein has been an important figure in crafting the American oral history tradition. Her first book, "American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy," edited by George Plimpton, won critical raves when it was published in 1970.

She's best known for "Edie: American Girl," also edited by Plimpton, her 1982 bestselling biography of Edie Sedgwick, the heiress, model and actress known for working with Andy Warhol. Sedgwick died of a drug overdose in 1971.

Stein is a familiar name to many Angelenos. Her father was Jules Stein, who co-founded the music and film company MCA, as well as the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA. Her daughter, Katrina vanden Heuvel, is the editor and publisher of the liberal magazine The Nation.

Stein's third and most recent book, "West of Eden: An American Place," an oral history of Los Angeles told through the perspective of five L.A. individuals and families, was published in February.

Writing for The Times, Judith Freeman called "West of Eden" "mesmerizing" and "compulsively readable."

Stein will also sponsor another PEN award, the PEN/Jean Stein Grant for Oral History. That prize, worth $10,000, will "support the completion of a literary work of nonfiction that uses oral history to illuminate an event, individual, place, or movement," according to PEN.

The PEN/Jean Stein Book Award will be judged anonymously. Nominations from the public will not be accepted.

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