“There are no rules but those you make up as you go along”: 2012 PEN America Awards

1. George Saunders and a dubious-looking E.L. Doctorow. 2. PEN President Peter Godwin pays tribute to Michael Henry Heim.

Our language is missing many words. We turn to German for schadenfreude, French for élan, Hindi for jungle, Finnish for sauna. Somewhere there must be a word for the combination of glee and relief and minute disappointment felt on realizing that others are, more or less, like oneself. I was sitting towards the back of the CUNY Graduate Center’s Proshansky Auditorium, trying to pin down my journalistic impressions, when I noticed that the majority of the better-dressed, more accomplished people filing in were claiming spots around me, far from the stage, as though we were filling seats not for a venerable annual awards ceremony but a pre-calculus class. And yet they came in pairs and droves, most looking bubbly and excited. There was jazz on the speakers and a slideshow of the books of award winners on the projector up front. It was PEN’s 90th Literary Awards Ceremony.

A quick gloss for the uninitiated: PEN American Center is the U.S. branch of the world’s oldest international literary and human rights organization. Writers, editors, translators, and others in the literary community compose its ranks, and every year PEN―semi-annual journal publisher, influential advocate for free expression worldwide, organizer of human rights and literacy campaigns, festivals and programs (like Prison Writing)―confers significant monetary prizes, awards, and grants―this time, nineteen categories in all.

1. Bingham Prize winner for best fiction, debut Vanessa Veselka.

PEN President Peter Godwin dedicated the evening to the much-admired translator Michael Henry Heim. When Heim died, less than a month ago, his anonymous endowment of $734,000 to establish the PEN Translation Fund was made public; Godwin noted this generosity as a boon to PEN’s commitment to the art of translation. Vanessa Veselka, winner of the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for her fiction debut, Zazen, gave the night an appropriate sense of full-circularity when she thanked the translators, saying it was foreign literature, above all, that gave her inspiration and joy.

1. PEN Translation Award winner Jen Hofer, and a friend. 2. Co-winners and playwrights Adam Rapp and Will Eno.

There were more instances of solidarity. I noticed, for example, that assigning a time limit to introductory/acceptance remarks has no apparent effect on the actual length of those remarks. It is, however, a remarkable guarantor of jokes about that time limit. Also, Academy Award jokes. In that vein, I have to award funniest speech of the night to Will Eno, co-winner of the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award for an American Playwright in Mid-Career. Eno said, “The word ‘career’ has always attached itself in my mind to the image of a car barreling down a highway, smoke pouring out the back, the driver’s hands off the wheel. And when I was in fourth grade I read a book, inappropriately enough, about the English Aristocracy, in which there was a sentence ‘the carriage horse careered through the privy fence.’ So to receive this prize is… encouraging.”

The night’s first award was entirely new: the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, which was founded and presented by Barbara Kingsolver. Given to the author of an unpublished novel that addresses issues of social justice, the prize, which includes a publishing contract with Algonquin Books, went to Susan Nussbaum, for her novel Good Kings Bad Kings. And the night’s last went to the man who was perhaps the biggest name among award recipients: E.L. Doctorow, winner of the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. George Saunders, presenting the award, called Doctorow’s great topic “the reach of American impossibility… American darkness, hubris, greed, occasional stupidity… but also our great optimism, the beauty and genius of American experience.” Doctorow himself referenced his elation at reading Bellows’ work, saying it helped him realize “there are no rules but those you make up as you go along.” And in a spot-on close he said “PEN is more precious and necessary with every passing year. And so I must assure this organization and its guardians that I will pay promptly my PEN dues.”

1. Margaret Sayers Peden being presented the Ralph Manheim Medal 2. Ben Lerner, runner up for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize.

The other winners of career awards were translator Margaret Sayers Peden, playwright Christopher Durang, poet Toi Derricotte, and sportswriter Dan Jenkins. Christopher Hitchens was honored for his book of essays, Arguably; both his widow and his longtime editor/agent accepted on his behalf. A full list of categories, winners, and runners-up can be found here.

After closing remarks from PEN Executive Director Steven L. Isenberg, the 350 or so attendees migrated one room over to nosh and chat at the reception, replete with cheeses, crackers, wine, olives, beer, sliced meat, and other such hors d’oeuvres, all in impressive geometries on multiple banquet tables. There may have been, somewhere in the crowd, lament over literature’s decline; that specter materialized once or twice in the speeches. But if there was lament, it seemed, for a few hours at least, unfounded. If there was, it was pushed aside blithely by PEN. Somewhere, there’s a word for that.


— Garon Scott lives, writes and sleeps uneasily in Brooklyn.

— Photos kindly provided by PEN and Beowulf Sheehan.

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