Grace Paley chewed gum while her citation was read at Saturday night's PEN/Faulkner Awards and began a reading of one of her stories with the warning "It's not so jolly either, but it's okay."
William Gaddis refused to read a selection of his work, saying he was a writer, not a performer. PEN award winner Peter Taylor did read from a story, but only after apologizing for the prewritten speech he would first deliver.
"I could speak these words in a heartfelt, hesitant fashion, but it would take a long time," said the author of "The Old Forest and Other Stories." "I'm going to read them quickly, in a simulated heartfelt fashion."
Like all award ceremonies, the PEN/Faulkner had its moments of high Gothic self-seriousness -- but they were the exception, perhaps because PEN is an organization of writers and its award is judged by writers. At this event the handing over of a citation and check was more like a family toasting itself than a patron bestowing praise.
"PEN is an attempt to turn the asylum of literature over to its inmates," explained novelist and PEN/Faulkner Foundation Chairman Robert Stone to the audience of about 250 gathered at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
One thing was learned that night: In the asylum of literature, there are no forks.
"I guess they're hoping to have a lot of leftovers," last year's winner, Tobias Wolff, said at the postceremony buffet as he looked longingly at unattainable seafood salad, quivering green caviar mousse and marinated mushrooms. One guest asked a waiter whether any utensils would be forthcoming and was told with disdain, "There are crackers!" But most found the crackers insufficient and turned to the faint comfort of toothpicks.
The Great Hall of the Folger had been turned over completely to food and literary gossip, one gaggle of literati pressing round a large wagon of fresh fruit, whipped cream and chocolate with a seriousness of intent reminiscent of scholars attacking a text.
"This is not a country that gives great awards to its artists," said judge Alice Adams, standing by the roast beef. The PEN/Faulkner provides both a little extra cash ($1,000 to the nominees, $5,000 to the winners) and recognition. Sometimes it directs the light of public attention toward books that have been largely ignored.
No one had reviewed Tobias Wolff's "The Barracks Thief" when it won last year. "I hadn't had much hope it would be reviewed," he said, "because it was so small. It was just 100 pages long. Books of that length are looked on as 'literary' and are not reviewed."
The recalcitrant reader Gaddis, author of "Carpenter's Gothic," referred to the PEN/Faulkner as an "elitist" award, but hurried to add, "If I say an elitist award, just wait for me a moment." He then recalled that when his second novel won the now-defunct National Book Award, he asked his publisher whether he thought it would help the sales. "Your book is already pegged as elitist and difficult," the publisher said. "It'll probably scare off the few other people who might have read it."
For judges Adams, Richard Bausch and Beverly Lowry, the event was a celebration of release from a year of literary servitude. The three novelists read more than 200 books before picking the six nominees. The other nominees were Helen Norris and the absent Hugh Nissenson and Larry McMurtry, whose "Lonesome Dove" won this year's Pulitzer Prize.
"If writers don't do this for each other," Lowry told the audience, "the job will be turned over to critics, professors, and then where would we all be?"
Lowry said she started the year of reading with great enthusiasm. "By about December, the job had run quite heavy, and I began to wonder about my sense this would be a joyous task. By January, when the last box came, I felt like the cat after he has made love with the skunk and says, 'I've enjoyed about all of this I can stand.' "