"THIS IS Katharine Zadravec at the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction office at the Folger Shakespeare Library."
Who? The What?
"Z-A-D-R-A-V-E-C, at the PEN/ Faulkner office at The Folger. PEN/ Faulkner, as in 'pen' for writing, and Faulkner, the writer."
As an arts administrator, I spend a great deal of time spelling my name and explaining what I do. Even in the book world, we should have short names.
New to Washington, the PEN/ Faulkner Award has been relocated from the University of Virginia to emphasize its national character. The award was founded three years ago to celebrate literary excellence in contemporary fiction.
A bookaholic, I soon discovered one of the joys of the job--all those books to devour. I gather the novels and short story collections published by small presses and big publishers alike and send them to the judges, a panel of three writers. I also keep track of the judges--one may be out of the country for weeks, another on a corner of Cape Cod where UPS doesn't like to deliver, a third barricaded behind his desk before a semester's teaching begins.
While the judges read, I also beg--by phone or by mail--to almost anyone who might have two cents to send us. The PEN/Faulkner is the only national prize founded, administered, judged and primarily funded by writers. I squeeze the prize money from a list of prominent names, notorious for their scant resources.
There are several committees to keep track of: PEN/South, which created the award and named it for William Faulkner because he had used his Nobel Prize money to establish a literary award (now defunct); the PEN American Center in New York, cosponsor of the award; and the PEN writers who take an interest in the award.
I also plan programs--this year including seminars and readings featuring writers from New York, Pennsylvania and Washington. The PEN/ Faulkner program will introduce Washington editor-writer Claudia Tate to a wider audience. Her book, "Black Women Writers at Work" (Continuum, 1983), has already sold out and is into a second printing. Tate teaches at Howard University.
A poet myself, I have found fiction easier to promote than poetry because more people read it. However, the PEN/Faulkner Award has its critics. James Laughlin, head of the New Directions publishing house, recently recalled that a New York publisher said it was a shame that the PEN/Faulkner had gone to such unimportant books. Evidently, he had forgotten that Laughlin's New Directions had published the 1983 winner ("Seaview" by Toby Olson).
The award has also been labeled elitist and inbred by some book critics, but David Bradley, who won in 1982 for his novel, "The Chaneysville Incident," told me the prize had kept him from selling out. When the award was announced that year, he said he realized "someone out there cared, someone was reading me."
Perhaps that's why I happily beg for PEN/Faulkner--because the writers care. Last winter, Larry McMurtry gave a benefit reading, then stayed afterward to talk about writing to a handful of fans and aspiring writers in one of the best seminars on the subject I've heard. And he did it for free--for the PEN/Faulkner. This year, Judith Viorst--another PEN member--will entertain families at a December holiday reading of her children's books.
Novelist Maureen Howard, one of the 1983 nominees, said that the award ceremony last spring (the first at the Folger) was free of the "publishing glitz" evident at so many New York literary events, that a "true feeling for and genuine good will toward writing was evident" and that the Folger was a "grand, unfusty establishment."
That's another story--how the Folger Library manages to be an "unfusty establishment." There are sometimes scones at morning coffee, cucumber sandwiches at tea, and the library fiercely protects the scholarly sanctum of its reading room. Then the doors will be thrown wide to celebrate contemporary work, at events like the PEN/Faulkner Award ceremony. Watch for it.