Iowa Writers' Workshop administers award; Warner will accept award at UI in the fall
Monday, March 25, 2013

Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, written by Marina Warner, professor in the Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex, and published by Harvard University Press, is the winner of the 2013 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin.

marina warner portrait
Marina Warner received this year's Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin for her book Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights. Photo by Dan Welldon.

The $30,000 award—the largest annual cash prize in English-language literary criticism—is administered for the Truman Capote Estate by the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Warner will accept the award this fall in a public event at the UI that will include remarks on the literary topic of her choosing. Warner is a writer of fiction, criticism, and history; her works include novels and short stories as well as studies of art, myths, symbols, and fairy tales.

The book was chosen by an international panel of prominent critics and writers—Terry Castle, Garrett Stewart, Michael Wood, John Kerrigan, Elaine Scarry, and Joyce Carol Oates—each of whom nominated two books. Books of general literary criticism in English, published during the last four years, are eligible for nomination. After reading all the nominated books, each critic ranked the nominees.

“I am very happy to receive this award. It wasn’t on my radar that I would be considered; the fact that it was completely unexpected provides additional pleasure,” Warner says. “I am familiar with the award, as previous honorees are people I know, including last year’s recipient, Elaine Showalter. I am honored and humbled by this accolade.”

Stranger Magic is a dazzling history of magical thinking, exploring the power of The Arabian Nights and its impact in the West, and retelling some of its wondrous tales. Magic is not simply a matter of the occult arts, but a whole way of thinking, of dreaming the impossible. As such it has tremendous force in opening the mind to new realms of achievement: imagination precedes the fact. It used to be associated with wisdom, understanding the powers of nature, and with technical ingenuity that could let men do things they had never dreamed of before. Warner’s book shows how magic, in the deepest sense, helped to create the modern world, and how profoundly it is still inscribed in the way we think today.

In a review in The Guardian, Robin Yassin-Kassab says, “Stranger Magic is a labor of love, an academic work which often reads like a fireside conversation. It’s encyclopedic, a book to be savored in slices, yet (inevitably) it’s easy to think of further potential topics—giants, for instance, or dervishes, or magical realism from the Arabs via La Mancha to the Latin American Boom. But Warner’s conclusion reminds us of her organising principle: the uses of enchantment to open new possibilities of thought and sympathy, indeed the necessity of magic, especially in a self-consciously ‘rational’ and secular world.”

And Harold Bloom says in The New York Times, “Warner takes an honored place in the sequence of those who have studied what Isaiah Berlin and others have called the Counter­Enlightenment, the speculations that renewed Neoplatonic and Gnostic heterodox versions of ancient wisdom. Her choice of The Arabian Nights, as a vital strand in the Counter-Enlightenment, is refreshing, since she shows some of the ways in which storytelling is essential to this kind of knowledge. As a contemporary scholar of myth and magic, she aids immensely in the struggle for literary values that has to be ongoing, whatever the distractions of our moment.”

The Truman Capote Estate announced the establishment of the Truman Capote Literary Trust in 1994, during a breakfast at Tiffany's in New York City, on the 40th anniversary of the publication of Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Past winners of the Capote Award have been British scholar P.N. Furbank, Helen Vendler of Harvard University; John Felstiner of Stanford University; John Kerrigan of Cambridge University; pianist/scholar Charles Rosen of the University of Chicago; Elaine Scarry and Philip Fisher of Harvard University; Malcolm Bowie of Oxford University; Declan Kiberd of University College, Dublin; Irish Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney; Susan Stewart of Princeton University; Angus Fletcher of the City University of New York Graduate School; Geoffrey Hartman of Yale University; William Gass of Washington University in St. Louis; Helen Small of Pembroke College, Oxford University; Geoffrey Hill of Boston University; Seth Lerer of the University of California at San Diego; Mark McGurl of the University of California at Los Angeles; and Elaine Showalter of Princeton University.

In addition to the administration of the literary criticism award, the Writers' Workshop involvement with the trust includes awarding Truman Capote Fellowships to UI students in creative writing.

The establishment of the Truman Capote Literary Trust was stipulated in the author's will, and the Annual Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin reflects Capote's frequently expressed concern for the health of literary criticism in the English language. The awards are designed to reward and encourage excellence in the field.

Newton Arvin, in whose memory the award was established, was one of the critics Capote admired. However, Arvin's academic career at Smith College was destroyed in the late 1940s when his homosexuality was exposed.

The Writers' Workshop is a graduate program in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Graduate College. Explore the writing programs at the UI at And learn about the activities of Iowa City as a UNESCO City of Literature at