PEN Announces Important Subsidies to the Rich

Starving writers let loose a collective cry of anguish as PEN awarded extra cash to those who didn’t need it. Two year scholarships at $35,000/year have been granted to rich literary darling Jonathan Safran Foer, Will Heinrich and Monique Truong. Also rolling in the dough is poet laurete Robert Pinsky, who has reportedly been planning an east wing extension to his house. Other awards were given to Anthony Swofford for Jarhead, playwrights Lanford Wilson and Lynn Nottage, and children’s author Deborah Wiles.


  1. Damn, I was going to rant about the PEN awards on the blog, but you beat me to it. Seriously, what on earth are the guidelines for how these are awarded, because obviously, financial hardship certainly isn’t one of them…

    I think Foer’s win might even out-trump Rick Moody for egregiousness.

  2. Elsewhere, JK Rowling just won a Guggenheim to complete “Harry Potter and the Righteous Bling Bling” while Alice Sebold received a MacArthur to write her follow-up novel, “Fifty Million More Really Lovely Bones.” However, contrary to some reports Lynne Truss’s agent, Blinky Urban Legend, denies that her client is working on an etiquette tome entitled “Eats, Shits and Doesn’t Leave a Tip.”

  3. I don’t know anyone who “doesn’t need money.” And I look forward to the day when whiners and grousers receive a grant or award and turn it down on the basis that (a) they “don’t need the money” or (b) some other middle-class writer deserves it more. Stop griping and get back to work.

  4. TSL, that entirely misses the point. These grants are supposed to “free up a writer from financial constraints” so they can concentrate on their writing. For writers like these, who do not have to hold day jobs, the awards are superfluous. Sure, they could probably “use” the money. But the recipients are supposed to NEED the money. Big difference.

  5. Speaking personally, I would need somewhere around $100K a year at least to free myself up to write and do nothing else: that would just about cover mortgage payments on my new one-family house, car payments, insurance for me and my family of four, savings for college for my two kids, to say nothing about food, clothing, and presents at Christmas. Thirty-five thousand after taxes is chicken feed; money runs out quick, in case you haven’t noticed. I’d rather give money to a writer who’s proven his or her talent so that they can continue to turn out good stuff than to some unknown who’s biggest argument for winning the scholarship is Hey I Need the Money. That’s just me. Maybe I’m wrong, or crazy, or both.

    Tell you what: when you win a scholarship, shoot me an e-mail immediately after you give it all back so PEN can give it to some “more deserving” writer who has less money than you. I’ll be waiting.

  6. This grousing is so predictable. You complainers should be happy with your allotment for six saltine crackers a day and get back to work. Remember, every hour you waste on the blogsphere is another 1/1,000,000 of an award you didn’t get for that book you didn’t write.

  7. ARC: I assure you that I AM at work on my sexy and daring contributions to the humanities on a daily basis. But I’m also at work at a bland day job. And what better way to stick it to The Man then to inform the blogosphere about literary happenings?

  8. Oh yours is a most excellent way, Ed. But grousing over awards for books that are well-written and enjoyable to read is baloney-hearted at best.

    P.S. Shaw

  9. Hi. A friend made me aware of this discussion. Just wanted to let you guys know that I completely agree with most everything you said about monetary awards and whom they should go to. That’s why I gave the money—every cent of it—back to PEN, which is as deserving as groups get. I didn’t make a big deal about it, because it didn’t seem fair to any other winners, who might have needed the money at the moment. But on the other hand, I’d had to take flack for something I didn’t do…

  10. Wow, TSL, you must be used to a major-league lifestyle. Where do you live, San Fran? What’s your home worth, $500K? Sending all the kids to Stanford? Whew…..

  11. I just received a PEN award for Books Beyond the Margins — specifically for my book about my 12-year-old Navajo son’s struggle and subsequent death from AIDS, THE BOY AND THE DOG ARE SLEEPING.

    There are no monetary lottery-like awards in the Beyond the Margins category. I’m still not sure what beyond the margins really means outside of this perpetual living beyond the cultural perimeters of dead children, homelessness, and scumbag publishers who virtually tell me EVERY day: we have enough black books.

    And I’m not even black.

    I’m angry.

    I’m beyond poverty.

    I’m beyond homelessness.

    I’m sick and fed up.

    I’m confronted with an indifference in publishing that speaks to the heart and soulessness of a culture that rewards the rich, the successful, the comfortable, the satisfied, the well-placed, the arrogant, the usually white-as-snow, and the talentless who are connected.

    This is what publishing is about. This is what writing is about, too.

    Most people from my culture — the Navajo –wouldn’t even try, access is not constructed for the downtrodden, and my people really do believe this, and while I wanted very much to run away from those negative conclusions for years and years, I now after having failed so utterly in the white world of books, am forced to conclude (late in life) my people were and are right. There’s a brick wall of racism in New York and my head’s imprint is clearly on it.

    Those of us “literary natives” that do not share this cynacism are considered to be community laughing stocks as we do not seem to be able to fathom our own invisibility and inevitable failure — it doesn’t matter one whit what you write — and most of us do, indeed, land squat on our faces as Random House doesn’t need any more black books this year.

    Imagine that.

    It is anything but a secret that publishing in general is the culture of hopelessness and champions the ideology of greed so driven by Binky and her literary clones.

    PEN does what it can but is severely limited by the restrictions imposed upon it by its funding sources, typically estates or corporations like HARPERS or UPS that dictate quite clearly how much can go to who.

    Their crystal award is quite beautiful, and sits on my kitchen table where there is no food yet offers me a writing space big enough to spill my guts and madness at the numbness, the careless, apathetic insouciance, the disdain-for-anything-new, the prim and querulous gilded rooster that is book publishing (which has enough black manuscripts this year) whose noblesse knightage sucks and shines the superficial veneer of all the usual laureates, the grandee samurai, the notable primates, the puffed-up patricians, and the done-before fat old dull white toad aristocrats with their Guggenheims, their lunches, their martinis, their swill-of-originality, their Danielle Steel, their Binky, their blue blood, their stake in the fucking status-quo-of-timidity, their sing-the-praises-of-themselves, crowned with all the stately and preeminent and imposing and worshipful magnate rank for us residuum-dregs of herds-and-mass, us humbler obsequious peasantry class, to bow and scrape at the decorous rape of those unwashed clodhopper vermin such as ourselves. And did I mention their Binky, no, well let me mention that white bitch. Binky.

    I can’t think of a single solitary soul who doesn’t shine more brightly like a gutless light bulb as a metaphor of that immortal-sacredness-of-greed unless it’s the peerage of publicists running around rampant in New York like a fellowship of noise enthroned on the religious alter of Charlie Rose.

    It makes me sick to know these people and the electric zenith they hold so closely to themselves as if someone might come along and steal them blind. I never used to believe in the ignominious superstitions and beliefs of my ancestors but I do now, and I know this: The Exalted Ones in publishing are pure evil personified. Pure evil. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

    I am.


    And so is publishing.

  12. PEN makes awards based on literary merit, not financial need. If an author, like Foer, doesn’t want or need the money, he shouldn’t apply for the award. That’s up to the writer and his or her conscience to decide. But it’s really unfair to start criticizing writers for accepting award money. Should writers return their advances as well? A $100,000 advnce may seem like an enormous amount, but a book takes years to writer, the agent takes 15 percent or more, the IRS takes another 30 percent or more, and so on. It takes years — a lot of the time living on a shoe string — for a writer to perfect his or her craft. He or she may have debts, or may, yes, want to put a new room on his or her house. You need not be starving to merit an award or advance of a few thousand dollars.

  13. I am a Cambridge, Mass. poet. I work two jobs: by day as a junior administrator at a hospital; by night, my wife and I spend 5 evenings each week with an elderly Cantabridgian in exchange for our 3rd floor apartment. The idea that fellowships and awards can literally free up time for art is true. I just won a Mass Cultural Council award of $5,000 in poetry–the award specifically is helping us to get out of our current evening bind, and will specifically impact my time to write. I seriously doubt that a fellowship or award such as the $5,000 PEN award given to Pinsky will similarly affect his writing. In the neighborhood we live in, we could never afford to buy, as homes begin at $2m. A few blocks over–even closer to Harvard Square ($$)–is where Pinsky calls home. I doubt he lives on the 3rd floor, and I doubt he spends any of his time wiping an ass rather than writing. There is a point when writing awards are not about affecting the quality of writing, or freeing writers to write at all. I think I have made my example.

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