Poet Frank Bidart, cultural critic James Wolcott and playwright David Rabe are among the winners of PEN Literary Awards announced this morning in New York. The prizes from the PEN American Center, founded in 1922, also include a number of fellowships and grants totaling almost $150,000.
Bidart, whose most recent collection, “Metaphysical Dog,” received a National Book Critics Circle Award in March, won the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, a $5,000 prize that recognizes an American poet’s “distinguished and growing body of work.” In their citation, the PEN judges said, “No poet of our time has so embodied conflict, creating living expressions of a consciousness moving through guilts and unmastered desires without resorting to easy resolutions.” In The Washington Post earlier this year, Elizabeth Lund wrote, “ ‘Metaphysical Dog’ is both a singular and a shared journey, one of Bidart’s strongest collections.”
Wolcott, a writer for Vanity Fair, won the $10,0000 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay for his most recent collection, “Critical Mass.” The PEN judges praised his sentences “that can be Swiftian in their tendency to go on and on and be chock-full of names, places, put-downs, bric-a-brac, all wrapped in a contagious pleasure in the fecundity of language, or Wildean in their concise and wicked performance of precision bombing.”
While practicing a form that seems increasingly endangered, Wolcott refused to cede any ground. On the eve of the PEN award announcement, he wrote via e-mail, “Everybody bemoans the current state of literary affairs (which I guess beats going out and mowing the lawn), but I read terrific pieces all the time that don’t get talked about much because they’re in literary quarterlies or magazines that don’t have a noisy online presence, but they’re there, like little chapels off the main road, resurrected in collections such as Dave Hickey’s recent “Pirates and Farmers.” The health of the essay form might be rosier if concern trolls stopped crowding around the hospital bed wringing their hands and worrying about its future; let the patient get some air. But that also could be said about the bedside vigils over the fate of the novel, the short story and literary criticism. Writing that gives pleasure will never be lonely.”
Rabe, who received a Tony Award in 1972, won the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award for Master Dramatist. The judges — John Lithgow, Elizabeth Streb and Maria Tucci — praised Rabe’s 40-year career, noting that his plays, particularly those about the Vietnam War years, “have withstood the test of time and will remain a powerful record of American life for decades to come.” Additional PEN/Pels awards were given to Donald Margulies (Mid-career, $7,500) and Laura Marks (Emerging, $2,500).
Carl Hart, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Columbia University, won the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award ($10,000) for “High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society.” When the news of his award broke, Hart was in Zurich studying how the Swiss deal with drugs and social justice. “Of course, I am humbled by the selection,” he wrote via e-mail. “‘High Price’ outlines many uncomfortable ideas and facts about topics we’d rather avoid such as race, poverty and drugs. The attention to the book is especially important now, as many countries around the world, including in Latin America and Europe, are questioning the status quo and are looking for ways to articulate a better, more just drug policy.”
Linda Leavell won the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography ($5,000) for “Holding On Upside Down,” her biography of poet Marianne Moore. In her review last fall in The Washington Post, Megan Marshall wrote, “It is Leavell’s singular accomplishment to bring the complexities of this extraordinary life into full view.” In response to her award, Leavell wrote via e-mail, “It is an honor for ‘Holding On Upside Down to be among the excellent biographies on the PEN long list and short list. I am grateful to PEN and to the judges and to the many people who supported the book in its various stages. It also happens that the announcement is on my birthday. It’s about the best birthday present I ever had.”
The PEN America Center also announced the winners of two prizes for sports writing. Mark Fainaru-Wada and his brother, former Washington Post reporter Steve Fainaru, won the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing ($5,000) for “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for Truth.” In a review in The Washington Post, Nate Jackson called this study of the deadly effects of football “meticulously researched, artfully structured, engaging and well written.”
Dave Anderson, a columnist for the New York Times, received the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award ($5,000).
As was previously announced, Washington, D.C. writer Ron Childress has received the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction for his unpublished novel “And West is West.”
The other PEN Literary Awards announced this morning are:
PEN Open Book Award ($5,000) for a book-length work of literature by an author of color: Ruth Ellen Kocher for “domina Un/blued” and Nina McConigley for “Cowboys and East Indians.”
PEN/Steven Kroll Award for Picture Book Writing ($5,000): Bil Lepp for “The King of Little Things.”
PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship ($5,000) for an author of children’s or young adult fiction: Linda Oatman High for “The Taste of Elephant Tears.”
PEN Award for Poetry in Translation ($3,000): “Diaries of Exile,” by the late Greek writer Yannis Ritsos, translated by Karen Emmerich and Edmund Keeley.
PEN Translation Prize ($3,000): “Autobiography of a Corpse,” by the late Russian writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated by Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov.
PEN/Edward and Lily Tuck Award for Paraguayan Literature ($3,000): Raúl Silva Alonso for “En Tacumbú.”
The winner of the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction ($25,000) will be announced at the PEN awards ceremony in New York on Sept. 29. The finalists are “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” by Washington native Anthony Marra; “Brief Encounters with the Enemy,” by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh; “Everybody’s Irish,” by Ian Stansel; “Godforsaken Idaho,” by Shawn Vestal; and “The People in the Trees,” by Hanya Yanagihara.
PEN American Center is a branch of PEN International, a human rights and literary organization devoted to defending free expression.