Sunday, August 09, 2009

Back to the PEN

I'd be surprised if you remember, but some months back this column discussed the International PEN, a global association of writers. There are 144 PEN centers worldwide, including three in the United States and one in Canada. Because the organization sponsors so many literary awards -- and since looking at awards is what we do in this column -- we're going to revisit the PEN and take a look at some of the prizes administered by its American branches.

In conjunction with the JFK Presidential Library, PEN New England presents the $8,000 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award to a debut fiction author. The late Mary Hemingway, wife of Ernest, founded the award in 1976 to honor her husband and draw attention to noteworthy first books. Two finalists and two runners-up join the prize winner in receiving a Ucross Residency Fellowship at the Ucross Founda
tion, a retreat for artists and writers on a 22,000 acre ranch on the high plains in Ucross, Wyoming.

The award ceremony is held at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. The Ernest Hemingway Collection in the presidential library houses ninety percent of existing Hemingway manuscript materials. This makes the Kennedy Library the world's principal resource for research on Ernest Hemmingway's life and work. It only made sense, therefore, for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to bring the presentation of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award there. This year the award went to Michael Dahlie for A Gentleman's Guide to Graceful Living.

At that same ceremony, recipients of the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Awards are also honored. Also created in 1976, these annual prizes are given in honor of the veteran Boston Globe editor Laurence L. Winship. They recognize a New England author or a book with a New England setting. Three categories are awarded. This year, these honors went to Margo Livesey for The House on Fortune Street (fiction); Nancy K. Pearson for Two Minutes of Light (poetry); and Patrick Tracey for Stalking Irish Madness (non-fiction). Other big names honored in the past include E.B. White, Susan Cheever, Tracy Kidder, Stanley Kunitz, and Louise Glick.

But New England's isn't the only PEN center in the US handing out official kudos. Earlier this year, the PEN American Center announced the winners of thirteen separate literary awards in a number of categories.

With a prize of $35,000, the PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship for Writers honors an exceptionally talented fiction writer whose debut work—a novel or collection of short stories—represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise. In addition to the cash award, the winner receives a stipend intended to permit a significant degree of leisure in which to pursue a second work of literary fiction. (Stop drooling, you're going to ruin the keyboard.) This year the award went to Ohio State University student Donald Ray Pollock for his collection Knockemstiff.

Of interest to writers of children's and young adult literature is the PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship. Established in 2001, this award provides a writer with financial help in order to allow the winner time to complete a novel in progress. The fellowship is supported by an endowment fund established by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. This year's award went to Carol Lynch Williams, author of the forthcoming YA novel, A Glimpse Is All I Can Stand.

Reigning over the fiction awards is the biennial PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. This award goes to a distinguished living American fiction writer whose body of work exhibits excellence, ambition, and scale of achievement over a sustained career. Established with the cooperation of the Estate of Saul Bellow, the prize was made possible through a generous grant from Mrs. Evelyn Stefansson Nef of Washington, D.C. This year the stipend of $25,000 went to Cormac McCarthy.

The PEN/Beyond Margins Awards, created by PEN American Center's Open Book Committee, invites submissions of book-length writings by authors of color published in the United States. The awards confer five $1,000 prizes.

Other awards sponsored by the PEN American Center include prizes for short stories, non-fiction, biography, playwriting, translation, poetry and editing.

Additionally, and consistent with PEN's commitment to promote freedom of speech, the organization sponsors a Prison Writing Contest.

As writers, we can feel overlooked, underpaid, and/or under-appreciated. It can be an encouragement to know we're not alone, and that people are not only rooting for us, but sometimes willing to give a helping hand. The PEN American Center offers a number of resources for writers, including an emergency fund, crisis advice and advocacy. They also sponsor a writing institute for New York City teenagers.

Even if the organization is not your cup of tea, its website is worth a look-see.


Gina Holmes said...

I really enjoyed this, Y. Thanks for doing the research. I had a question though. How does one get entered in these contests? Is it the publisher who does it? Is there a cost involved? It's okay if you don't know. Thanks again. This was great :-)

Yvonne Anderson said...

Sorry, Gina, I don't recall seeing the details on all of them but I think it differs from one contest to another. I suppose anyone who's interested should check the appropriate PEN web page for whichever award they're feeling hopeful about.

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