Stars of literary fiction like Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz, and Chad Harbach turned out at the PEN American Center Gala Tuesday night but, alas, with a playwright, a journalist, and a publisher receiving honors, it was but another occasion for American novelists to go unrecognized by an organization that historically validates their metier.
While guests circled the dinosaurs in the lobby of the American Museum of Natural History, The Observer asked Jeffrey Eugenides and Gary Shteyngart what they made of their colleagues’ universal snub from the Pulitzer board last month.
Mr. Shteyngart, a fan of finalist Karen Russell, was disappointed about the publicity opportunity lost.
“People don’t read much no more,” the blurber extraordinaire told us. “There’s some books, not as good as The Hunger Games, but maybe people should read them.”
“It’s regrettable,” agreed Mr. Eugenides, who suggested the Pulitzer board figure out protocol for a split vote. (He wouldn’t have minded a runner-up spot himself, he added.)
Both were nonetheless well-equipped to appreciate of artistic contributions of PEN’s Literary Service honoree, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? playwright Edward Albee. Mr. Eugenides told us he originally wanted to be an actor, and put on plays with fellow novelists Donald Antrim and Rick Moody while they were at Brown together.
“I’m a writer because I wasn’t a good enough actor,” said Mr. Eugenides, noting that playing all the parts in a scene was good practice for writing all the characters in a book.
Mr. Shteyngart told us his theatrical ambition had been cut short in an acting class with Louise Lasser.
“Woody Allen’s second wife,” he said. “She’s a lovely woman but she said I was a terrible actor. She said I was fake and manipulative.” As a New Yorker, Mr. Shteyngart told her, he knew no other way to be.
While guests found their seats under the blue whale, master of ceremonies Charlayne Hunter-Gault told the crowd that she’d been surprised to see presenter Tony Kushner’s byline when she tucked into her New Yorker iPad edition this week.
“There was his article on hacking that made my hair stand on end,” she said, referring to the George Hotz profile by David Kushner. (No relation.)
The Angels in America playwright took the podium noting that although he didn’t write the piece, he was “certainly going to go home and read it.”
Equally impressive, Mr. Kushner squeezed a New Yorker profile-length introduction to Mr. Albee into his alotted three minutes, including a brief recap of Sunday night’s episode of Mad Men (it name-checked Mr. Albee) and running only ten minutes over.
“You’re talking too long!” a heckler from the squirming audience eventually told Mr. Kushner. But, in accepting the award, Mr. Albee also demonstrated PEN’s mission to fight the censorship of writers.
“That was a very good three minutes,” Mr. Albee said, looking rakish in mustache and brown leather blazer. “Since I’m allotted five I’ll only go on eighteen.”
After applauding PEN, “an organization that does you honor by honoring you,” Mr. Albee honored himself by interviewing himself about his career, playing both the role of Mr. Albee and an invisible journalist he’d just met, a young fellow named Tommy.
One other journalist went unseen: Ethiopian journalist and dissident Eskinder Nega’s wife accepted the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write award on his behalf, as Mr. Nega is currently being tried under the country’s oppressive anti-terrorism laws. Likewise, Turkish publisher Ragip Zarakolu’s son and daughter accepted the Jeri Laber Freedom to Write Award for their father, who was recently released from prison.