Karen Joy Fowler wins PEN/Faulkner Award

(Courtesy of Marian Wood Book/Putnam)
(Courtesy of Marian Wood Book/Putnam)

Karen Joy Fowler has won the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.” The $15,000 prize honors the best work of fiction published in the preceding year by an American.

Loosely inspired by the work of Winthrop Kellogg at Indiana University in the early 1930s, “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” tells the story of a young woman raised with a chimp as a sibling. Fowler’s sixth novel received laudatory reviews in The Washington Post and other newspapers when it appeared last May.

Her book is, by far, the most popular of this year’s finalists, which include two collections of short stories (Joan Silber’s “Fools” and Valerie Trueblood’s “Search Party”) and two esoteric postmodern novels (Daniel Alarcón’s “At Night We Walk in Circles” and Percival Everett’s “Percival Everett by Virgil Russell.”) These four finalists will receive $5,000 each.

Madison Smartt Bell, Manuel Muñoz and Achy Obejas served as this year’s judges. They considered more than 430 American novels and short story collections, about the same crushing number submitted for the National Book Award for fiction.

In a statement released this morning, Muñoz said, “Fowler captures an altogether new dimension of the meaning — and heartbreak — of family dynamics.”

With its disturbing portrayal of the abuse that chimps endure, “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” also makes a strong argument against using these intelligent animals in academic and medical research. Fowler worked on the novel for more than a decade, but happily, just days after it was published, the federal government began the process of declaring chimpanzees an endangered species, a move that would prohibit their use in invasive medical testing.

In an interview last year, Fowler said, “This gives me hope that we may rethink our relationship to chimps even more profoundly in the future, acknowledging their basic legal rights as the Great Ape Project has proposed.”

Over the course of her career, Fowler, who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif. and is 64, has produced a delightfully diverse body of work — from historical novels laced with fantasy and science fiction to domestic novels tinged with elements of the bizarre. She has won a Nebula Award, a Shirley Jackson Award and a World Fantasy Award. And in the early 1990s, she co-founded the James Tiptree, Jr. Award for science fiction and fantasy. Her “Sister Noon” was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2001.

But it was her most conventional novel, “The Jane Austen Book Club,” that earned her the most widespread attention. It was published in 2004, at a particularly fertile moment for American book clubs, and became a national bestseller.

Calling itself “America’s largest peer juried prize for fiction,” the PEN/Faulkner Award often raises the profile of relatively unknown authors. Although previous winners have included such luminaries as John Updike and Annie Proulx, the jurors have not been averse to choosing relatively unknown writers. Last year’s winner, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, had published his work with Cinco Puntos, a small independent press in El Paso, Texas.

Fowler and the four finalists will be honored at a ceremony at the Folger Library on May 10. Tickets ($100) can be purchased at the Folger Box Office (202-544-7077) or online at www.folger.edu/penfaulkneraward.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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