PEN America Names Some $350,000 in Literary Honors for 2018

In News by Porter Anderson

PEN America’s annual raft of awards honors both works and bodies of work, national and international, all adding up to around US$350,000 for more than 20 awards, fellowships, grants, and prizes going to writers and translators.

Recipients of PEN America’s various lifetime achievement honors for 2018, from upper left are Edmund White, Edna O’Brien, Luis Alfaro, and Mike Lew. From lower left, Barbara Harshav, Kamau Brathwaite, Dave Kindred, and Sibyl Kempson

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘When Inspiration Is Sorely Needed’

In a large list of winners for its annual suite of literary awards worth $325,000 in total, the now consolidated PEN America program has named gay author Edmund White to the Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction for his body of work.

Other high-visibility wins included Edna O’Brien of Ireland taking the Nabokov, another recognition for a body of achievement; Jenny Zhang winning the Bingham for Debut Fiction (for Sour Heart); and the late Ursula K. Le Guin being honored with the Diamonstein-Spielvogel for the Art of the Essay.

More specifically on the lifetime achievement honors from the organization is here.

PEN America’s executive director Suzanne Nossel is quoted in a prepared statement, saying, “In times of challenge, great literature offers a desperately needed window onto other possibilities. We celebrate these extraordinary writers, and we thank them for keeping us nourished at a time when inspiration is sorely needed.”

Of particular interest to poetry fans, Layli Long Soldier’s debut eollection Whereas took the Book of the Year honor, the Jean Stein Book Award, which carries a generous US$75,000 purse. And we’ll start there with the awards, all announced this week in an evening at the New York University Skirball Center in New York Center.

2018 PEN America Award Winners

PEN/Jean Stein Book Award ($75,000)

Whereas by Layli Long Soldier (Graywolf Press)

From the jurors’ rationale: “Layli Long Soldier’s ambitious Whereas is a grand reckoning with both language and history. As citizen, as mother, as poet, she asks with profound tenderness What man [or woman] is expendable? then leads the journey toward a consciousness of songas tough-minded inquiry and reclaimed territory. An elegant and fierce introspection defines this volume of poetry, as does a rectifying spirit of restless invention.”

PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction ($25,000)

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang (Lenny)

From the jurors’ rationale:  “Sour Heart tests and topples such categories as “immigrant fiction” or “coming-of-age story”—making its own vital, original, and wholly irresistible footprint on American letters.”

PEN Open Book Award 

A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa by Alexis Okeowo (Hachette)

From the jurors’ rationale:  “Alexis Okeowo humanizes the lives behind the headlines, transforming often one-dimensional news stories from the African continent into narratives of endurance and survival. A young Ugandan couple escapes the Lord’s Army; a Mauritanian activist battles the ancient practice of slavery; locals fight back against Boko Haram in Nigeria; in Somalia, young women pursue their dreams of playing basketball despite religious edicts. These are narratives of everyday people confronting unimaginable challenges where one’s very existence becomes an act of resistance.”

PEN/Edward and Lily Tuck Award for Paraguayan Literature ($3,000)

(An additional $3,000 is given to a winning translator in order to bring the work to the English-language market.)

Fantasmario by Javier Viveros

From the jurors’ rationale: “In these stories about the Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia, we are not dealing with a patriotic ‘Paraguayan’ defense of the war, but rather with a tale of the question of war itself, of its suffering bodies, and of the mark that war leaves on the consciousness of its survivors.”

PEN Tranlsation Prize

Katalin Street by Magda Szabó

From the jurors’ rationale: The book “tracks the intertwined lives of three Budapest families before and after the devastation of World War II. This beautiful translation illuminates Szabo’s deep humanity. Translating Katalin Streets intricate, elegant text required tremendous subtlety and artistry to achieve such flawlessness, and Rix clearly possesses the mastery to allow Szabo herself to stand out as an exemplary writer.”

PEN/Diamonstein-Speilvogel Award for the Art of the Essay ($10,000)

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by the late Ursula K. Le Guin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

PEN/Bograd Weld Prize for Biography ($5,000)

Richard Nixon: The Life by John A. Farrell (Doubleday)

From the jurors’ rationale: “Most stunning is the meticulous and eerie portrayal of Nixon’s toxic psychological progression, so that in the end Watergate or something like it was fated to happen.”

PEN/E.O. Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing ($10,000)

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris (Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

From the jurors’ rationale: “In The Butchering Art, Lindsey Fitzharris provides a clear-eyed view over Lister’s shoulder, and lets us watch as he progresses toward the revolutionary idea that invisible germs could be lethal, and that killing those germs might save countless lives. Fitzharris is a brilliant narrator of visceral operating-room scenes, but her account of the medical community’s prolonged and contentious resistance to Lister is just as compelling.”

PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing ($5,000)

Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

From the jurors’ rationale: “More than simply describing a life, Eig has created a context that allows us to understand that life more fully than we ever have before. This is biography at its best.”

PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers


More from Publishing Perspectives on PEN America is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He is also co-owner and editor with Jane Friedman of The Hot Sheet, the newsletter for trade and indie authors. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, at London's The Bookseller. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.