February 22, 2018
Five Takeaways from the PEN America Literary Awards
by Michael Barron
Last night, the soon-to-be-consolidated PEN America convened at NYU’s Skirball Center to celebrate writers at its annual PEN America Literary Awards. The organization’s website explains: “Since 1963, the PEN America Literary Awards have honored many of the most outstanding voices in literature across diverse genres, including fiction, poetry, science writing, essays, sports writing, biography, children’s literature, and drama. With the help of our partners, PEN America confers over 20 distinct awards, fellowships, grants and prizes each year, awarding nearly $315,000 to writers and translators.”
The liberal pundit and author Sally Kohn hosted the ceremony with a mixture of jocularity and sincerity, and the winners, besides expressing pleasure, took the occasion to offer poignant remarks on the current state of writing in Amerca. Chinese-American writer Jenny Zhang, who won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction for her story collection Sour Grapes, spoke about how she had grown up in a community that did not have much of a voice in America, noting the responsibilities and occasional guilt she had in engendering one. John Farrell, winner of the PEN/Bograd Weld Prize for Biography for Nixon: The Life, lamented that we were living through, as he put it, “this nightmare again.”
Here are five more takeaways from last evening:
1. There is an award given to untranslated Paraguayan literature.
Apparently, if you endow a large enough award, it will be noted at the podium on prize night. The PEN/Edward and Lily Tuck Award for Paraguayan Literature is such a prize, and a notably sweet one, with $3,000 going to “the living author of a major work of Paraguayan literature,” and another $3,000 to a translator willing to take on the task of bringing that work into English. Last night’s unanymous winner was Javier Viveros, for his novel Fantasmario, set during the Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia in the early thirties.
2. We should all be thankful for mouthwash.
When Lindsey Fitzharris took the podium to accept the PEN/E.O. Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing for The Butchering Art, her biography of the Victorian-era surgeon Joseph Lister, the audience learned that her subject is in fact the namesake of Listerine. Interesting fact, but not as eyebrow-raising as the revelation that what would eventually become ubiquitous as a mouthwash was originally used to treat gonorrhea.
3. Edmund White had a rocky beginning as a writer.
In the acceptance speech for his much-deserved PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, Edmund White noted how he had struggled to get his first contract. “I’d written four, before the fifth, after being shopped around to 22 publishers, was finally accepted.” White also noted that his debut, to him a plainly gay story, was regarded by critics as an upstanding mystery novel. And then, White said, when he subsequently cranked the knob on the queerness of his writing, one Times critic lambasted him for being too unsubtle with his sexuality. You can’t make everybody happy.
4. Vladimir Nabokov didn’t think much of women writers.
Or so said Irish novelist Edna O’Brien, the winner of the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature. “Mr Nabokov, genius that he was, was quite scathing of women,” O’Brien said, noting that he only included one work by a woman writer in his long-used syllabus on European literature (it was Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park). She added that Nabokov “says the greatest gift imperative for literature is enchantment, and I agree but add two more words: thralldom and permanence.”
5. The Grand Prize was awarded to an Oglala Sioux poet.
The nominees for the best book prize included such luminaries as Ta-Nehisi Coates (for We Were Eight Years in Power) and Hari Kunzru (for White Tears), but the award went to an arguably underdog nominee, the poet Layli Long Soldier’s collection Whereas. Apparently as surprised as anyone else, Long Solider eased into a slow, elegant speech on what the prize meant to her and her family, especially her daughter, who she hoped would always know her heritage.
Michael Barron is an editor at Melville House.