Short Story Center Stage at PEN Awards, Upstaging Sam Shepard, Cormac McCarthy, Even Natasha Wimmer

By Jane Ciabattari

Short stories were championed throughout the evening at PEN American Center’s awards ceremony last night at CUNY’s Graduate Center on Fifth Avenue.

Laura Furman, editor of the annual O. Henry prize anthology, was in town to honor the PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories, the result of a new partnership between Vintage and PEN American Center. O.Henry award winning authors present included Graham Joyce, L.E. Miller, Alistair Morgan, Manuel Munoz, Judy Troy, Viet Dinh, and Marisa Silver. This is the first time PEN has ever honored the short story. Proceeds from the collection will be directed to PEN’s Readers & Writers Program, and the anthology will become a reading staple in PEN’s Writing Institute. (O.Henry authors will be celebrated tonight at Idlewild Books in Manhattan.)

The PEN/ Nora Magid Award for a magazine editor of distinction went to Hannah Tinti,editor of One Story magazine, introduced by Richard Nash as “the Princess Leia of American short fiction.” Nash credited her with saving the short story from the Death Star of indifference. Tinti, complete with braids in her hair, accepted the accolade, and passed some of the credit along to her publisher, Maribeth Batcha, for coming up with the idea of sending one short story by mail to subscribers every three weeks. “The short story is far far far from dead,” Tinti concluded.

Another short story honor: Donald Ray Pollock, author of the story collection “Knockemstiff,” flew in from Ohio, where he worked 32 years in a paper mill before taking up writing, to accept the PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship, a $35,000 grant. Janna Levin, presenting the award, called his book “brutal and unflinching.” “This is a big deal for me,” Pollock said. “And it couldn’t come at a better time. I’m getting ready to get out of graduate school, and there are no jobs out there.”

Natasha Wimmer, translator of Roberto Bolano’s sprawling novel “2666,” which won this year’s NBCC award in fiction, accepted the PEN Translation Prize with a list of thanks all around, from Jonathan Galassi at FSG, himself a translator, Barbara Epler of New Directions, who first published Bolano’s work, and Chris Andrews, who first translated Bolano’s work, to her mother Elizabeth Wimmer, “also a translator,” her husband, “who quit his job to come with me to Mexico City for two months,” and “Bolano himself, whose words being me here.”

PEN also honored Marilyn Hacker for her translation from the French of of Marie Etienne’s “King of a Hundred Horsemen.” Etienne was “unafraid to synthesize poetry and prose,” Hacker said in a note, adding that the poet who also is a translator is both the most engaged reader and a participant in the “wrestling with language” that poetry requires.

A PEN/Saul Bellow lifetime achievement award of $25,000 went to Cormac McCarthy, on whose behalf Sonny Mehta said a brief thanks.

Sam Shepard was on stage to accept another lifetime achievement award, the Laura Pels Foundation Award for a Master American Playwright. His award: a first edition of Lonesome Traveler by Jack Kerouac with illustrations by Larry Rivers. He began with a disclaimer—“I’ve written a couple of speeches, but I don’t like them”—and then reminisced about his days as a busboy at the Village Gate in 1963-64, and how his offhand remark about having been “fooling around with dialogue” led to the serendipitous chance to become part of the birth of the Off Off Broadway movement. “Little did I know that the rest of my life would be spent in this endeavor,” he said wryly.