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From the Director: Notable Fiction Honored by PEN

by Helene Atwan

Ferris I have the honor to serve as the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award administrator for PEN-NE (please visit the web site if you don’t know this wonderful organization, devoted to the causes of literacy and freedom of expression). Last Sunday was the day that the award was conferred, this year to novelist Joshua Ferris for Then We Came to the End (Little, Brown), a remarkably witty and deeply affecting book about the world of work in an era of downsizing. The Hemingway is for a first work of fiction, and the judges also named two finalists, Rebecca Curtis for Twenty Grand (Harper Perennial) and Ravi Howard for Like Trees, Walking (Amistad). In the same ceremony, at the magisterial John F. Kennedy Library in Dorchester, Mass., PEN-NE handed out the L.L.Winship Award for fiction to Rishi Reddi for Karma and Other Stories (Harper Perennial), in Poetry to Ann Killough for Beloved Idea (Alice James Books), and in nonfiction to Kristin Laine for American Band (Gotham Books).

Karma The ceremony began with Patrick Hemingway reading the opening of his father’s American classic, A Farewell to Arms, a lacerating critique of war. Joshua Ferris gave a passionate speech about the unique and vital role of fiction in a world besotted by the promise of science and technology, then treated us all to an absurdly funny passage from his novel in which a character spoke only in lines from The Godfather (you’ll just have to read the book). Ann Killough read two long and powerful poems about our nation, caught up with its “vast apparatus of conquest and its high-frequency cries of longing.” And finally, novelist Alice Hoffman offered a riveting keynote address about women's voices in contemporary American fiction, framed—in part—as a tribute to two of the most compelling and original voices of our times, Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen. Hoffman’s talk reminded all 600 or so readers and writers gathered in the beautiful hall beneath photos of Papa H. of just how hard it has been for women to break the stigma of “domesticity” that has been used to diminish the work of writers from Jane Austin to Paley and Olsen and their literary heirs. She had barely finished when the room rose in unison to applaud her.

Harmanblue_cotton_gown Hoffman’s words had special resonance on a stage where we had just handed awards to four women for their first books (the PEN/L.L. Winship Awards are given specifically for books about New England or by New England writers, but not necessarily to first books). And for me, as director of a press that has always tried to represent the interests and voices of women, it was a most welcome reminder of how important it is to our society that we pay attention to the voices not just of women, but of people of color, of people from other cultures and ethnicities; that we value beautifully crafted portrayals of the daily struggles of family and work as much as, say, the bigger canvases of war. Alice Hoffman’s words stayed with me through a wonderful dinner with PEN friends, including Jennifer Haigh, a novelist who has the unique distinction of having won both the PEN/Hemingway and PEN/L.L. Winship and who “gave back” by serving as a judge of the Hemingway this year. Her next novel, The Condition, promises to be her best yet, a book deeply rooted in the “domestic.” And I thought of Hoffman’s talk again as I settled in to look over the page proofs of one of our own books, Patsy Harman’s The Blue Cotton Gown, a memoir entirely consumed with the voices of women in rural West Virgina. A book which might well have made Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley smile.

Helene Atwan began her career in publishing at Random House in 1976; she worked at A.A.Knopf, Viking Press, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Simon and Schuster, before being named director of Beacon Press in 1995.  She served for eight years on the board of PEN-New England and is the Administrator of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.