Peter Matthiessen & 10 Happy Whiting Awardees

By Jane Ciabattari

For 26 years the Whiting Writers’ Awards have provided a giddy moment in the literary calendar. Each year ten winners, nominated and selected without their knowing it, are invited to appear on stage in the wood-paneled auditorium at the Morgan Library. Each is handed a check for $50,000. And they don’ t have to give a speech.

No wonder most of the ten Whiting Award winners appeared insanely happy as they listened to the judges' citations:

David Adjmi, playwriting (Stunning, The Evildoers, Marie Antoinette, Strange Attractors, Elective Affinities, Caligula): “Wildly inventive feats of juxtaposition and wit drive these pieces as they scoff at the foolish consistencies of a too-too tidy dramaturgy.”

Elif Batuman, nonfiction (The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them)“She is sly, charming, erudite.”

Michael Dahlie, fiction (A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living): “a kinder, slightly more mischievous version of Louis Auchincloss—a rarity in our maximalist age, an endangered species.”

Matt Donovan, poetry (Vellum): “Subtle, intelligent, beautifully crafted, these poems are like tapestries in a museum…”

Rattawut Lapcharoensap, fiction (the short story collection Sightseeing): “(He writes with a depth of emotion, of tenderness, really, and fluent descriptive detail.”

Amy Leach, nonfiction (the forthcoming Things That Are), cited for “the sheer audacity of her invention…”

Lydia Peelle, fiction (the short story collection Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing): “beautiful prose, gorgeous sentences, flawless ear.”

Said Sayrafiezadeh, autobiography (When Skateboards Will Be Free): “intelligent, funny, utterly unsmug and unpreening.”

Jane Springer, poetry (Dear Blackbird):”thoroughly imaginative thrilling work.”

LB Thompson, poetry (Tendered Notes: Poems of Love and Money): “Wild and strange and brilliant.”

Onstage to offer up a set of confessions, cautions, and exhortations to the Whiting winners was the venerable Peter Matthiessen, author of 30 books, including Shadow Country, which won the 2008 National Book Award in fiction. The Whiting Awards, he said, fill the gap in which many first-time authors are rushed into second books. “Their editor, their agent, their mother pushes for the second book. Strike while it’s hot. There are exceptions, but generally the second effort comes out too fast. “Sometimes the second book never happens.” In a full-fledged digression on one-book authors, he mentioned the 1912 novel The Sea and the Jungle by H. M. Tomlinson (“the descriptions of the sea are just super”), Nathaniel West's Miss Lonelyhearts (what about Day of the Locust?), Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, and the only novels by the unfortunate duo of Ross Lockridge (Raintree County) and Tom Heggen (Mister Roberts),  both of whom committed suicide within the year of hitting it big in the 1940s.

“The Whiting recipients all look to be in pretty good shape,” Matthiessen said. “There are a lot of one-book writers. They shot their wad right there. You may not produce a book as good as your first. What if you draw a blank? We all draw blanks at times.”

Matthiessen described some of his own “pitfalls and pratfalls,” including two post-Yale years in the CIA, with a Paris Review editorship as his cover, which led him to a lifetime of leftist activism. Then there was the seductiveness of the money Mr. Shawn paid him for nonfiction assignments at The New Yorker, which wooed him away from novel writing. “I really sold out,” he said. “Fiction was where my heart was. Mr. Shawn ultimately took eight of my books.” He also was a passionate activist, engaged with Cesar Chavez and American Indian causes, but tied up for eight years in a lawsuit (which he ultimately won) after writing In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, about American Indian activist Leonard Peltier.

Did he have regrets? Did nonfiction keep him from writing the novels he should have written? By way of an answer, Matthiessen circled around his life work in fiction– a couple of short stories in The Atlantic while in college; his first novel, Far Tortuga, in 1975; then a trilogy (Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man's River, and Bone by Bone) that was reshaped decades later into Shadow Country. He followed the arc of the trilogy from the moment he saw a house in the Everglades (someone told him “Mr. Watson lived there, he was killed by his neighbors”) to the paring down to 912 pages, working with editor Becky Saletan. He wanted his prose to be stripped of simile, he said. Spare as a spoon. There was only one “like” in the whole book, he added. “Thirty years,” he concluded. “Half of my writing life I was working on that book.”


photo credit: Virginia Claire Sprance