Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction: 2017 National Book Festival


>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington, D.C.>>Robert Newlen: I
want to welcome you to the 17th National Book Festival. It’s hard to believe 17, and
I’ve been around for all of them. Today we open the fiction
pavilion by following tradition, with a ceremony bestowing
this year’s Library of Congress prize in
American fiction. However, before I start, I
want to recognize Marie Arana. Marie has made invaluable
contributions to American letters, both as coordinator of this prize, and one of the driving forces
behind the National Book Festival. This incredible program that we see
today is with great thanks to Marie. A gifted and highly praised writer,
and scholar in her own right, Marie brings passion and a generous
spirit to everything she does, and it is a real privilege
to work with her. Marie, will you please stand? [ Applause ] So, let me tell you a
little bit about the prize. It’s meant to honor an American
literary writer whose body of work is distinguished not
only for its mastery of the art, but also for its originality
of thought and imagination. The award seeks to commend
strong, unique, enduring voices that throughout long, consistently
accomplished careers have told us something about the
American experience. Previous winners of the prize
include Don DeLilo, E.L. Doctorow, Louise Erdrich, Toni
Morrison, Philip Roth, and last year, Marilynne Robinson. For 2017, the Library of Congress
and its distinguished jury of 27 writers and critics from around the world selected
Denis Johnson for this honor. Last March the Librarian
of Congress, Dr. Hayden, offered the prize to Mr. Johnson,
and he enthusiastically accepted. It was the last major honor he was to receive before his
tragic death on May 24th. Today we pay homage
to his life and work, with some very special guests
reading citations from just a few of Johnson’s fellow
writers and admirers. First though, let’s begin with a
video tribute to our prizewinner.>>Marie Arana: English
words are like prisms, empty. Nothing inside. And still, they make rainbows. So says a character in Already
Dead, a novel by the late, great American writer Denis Johnson. Johnson’s stories, as legions of
his fans know, are also prisms. They are hard, merciless, flinty,
and yet they too make rainbows. He has been called a
writer’s writer’s writer. And, for all the enigma
of that string of words, they hold a simple truth. Those who bring language to life
recognize Johnson’s gifts instantly. Louise Erdrich calls his work
profound and transcendent. Jonathan Franzen finds his sentences
miracles of transparency and tone. Philip Roth calls him daring,
terrifying, and an emissary for tortured, broken souls. Marilynne Robinson marvels that
a writer’s personal passions and energies can be so
inextricably wedded to his words. All agree Denis Johnson has
managed to give us minimalist, yet distinctly ecstatic and
hallucinatory, rainbow prose. He is an American original. He was born in 1949 in Munich,
Germany, and raised in Tokyo and Manila, the child
of American diplomats. As a teenager, moving
back to Washington, D.C. during the tumultuous ’60’s,
he came to know the country and the restless characters he would
capture so vividly in his fiction. He graduated in English literature
from the University of Iowa, and earned an M.F.A. from
the Iowa Writers Workshop, where he returned as a teacher. He has also taught at
Texas State University, and the University
of Texas at Austin. In the course of his fevered
career, he published novels, short stories, journalism,
and poetry. Among his best-known works
are those about the flotsam and jetsam of American life. The Laughing Monsters. Nobody Move. Tree of Smoke. Already Dead. Jesus’ Son. Resuscitation of a Hanged Man. The Stars at Noon. Fiskadoro. Angels. He’s received
numerous award for these, including a National Book Award,
a Lannan Fellowship in Fiction, a Writing Writers award,
and in 2008, he was named a finalist
for the Pulitzer Prize. Throughout he has chronicled
an America that has gone unobserved,
unrecorded. Here are our drug addicts, our
war veterans, our disaffected, our used up and left behind. And yet, the most affecting
and rewarding aspect of Denis Johnson’s fiction
is that in work after work, he has proved that beauty often
lurks in unexpected places. That strength can be
found in failure. That the human spirit is a
fragile, but resilient vessel. His is a very American story. He once described his works as
pressure cookers of language. His characters as those who
inhabit life’s perilous edge. As time wore on, he found that
he himself was all too vulnerable to these human frailties. When the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden offered Denis Johnson
the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction in March of
2017, he wrote in an email message, “My head is spinning
from such great news.” Two months later, tragically,
he was dead. The Library is very proud
to honor, posthumously, this extraordinary human being
and writer, whose contributions to the American canon have
been lasting and invaluable. As the Librarian wrote when the
prize was announced in June 2017, Denis Johnson was a
writer for our times. In prose that fused grace with
grit, he spun tale after tale about our walking wounded, the demons that haunt,
the salvation we seek. We emerge from his imagined
world with profound empathy, a different perspective–
a little changed. We’re very proud to count Denis
Johnson among the distinguished winners of the Library of Congress
Prize for American Fiction. [ Music ] [ Applause ] As you can see, he was a
towering figure in letters, and I hope that we send out
the word for more readers for Denis Johnson’s work. We received at the Library
of Congress right away, upon Denis’ death, pleas,
really from so many writers, and so many people around the world
who were familiar with his work, and who were in publishing or
who were writers themselves, wanting to give citations for
this moment, for this ceremony. So, we are going to read
a few of those citations. To help me do that, is the
publisher at Random House, Susan Kamil, who’s a great friend. Let’s give her a hand. [ Applause ] Thank you, Susan, for
coming from New York. And, also Sam Nicholson, who was Denis Johnson’s
editor, also of Random House. [ Applause ] We’ll just start in. This is from Philip Roth. “When I was asked to nominate a
writer for this year’s Library of Congress Prize for American
Fiction, I did so in eight words. ‘My sole nominee is the
great Denis Johnson.’ Johnson brought news from
the darkest, wildest depths of American life, as Mark Twain did
in chapters of Huckleberry Finn, and Faulkner in a slew of novels. From the moment I began reading
his terrifying first novel, Angels, I felt the strength, and his
daring, and recognized his place of eminence among those of
brilliant American predecessors for whom desperation and
savagery were depicted with searing originality in a
prose style uniquely evocative of the broken souls, each brought
remorselessly into tortured being. There was no one like him, tracking
the descent of what he called, in Already Dead, isolated
minds bending around tightly, to
feed on themselves.”>>Susan Kamil: And,
this from Louise Erdrich. “Denis Johnson’s are the
rarest sort of books, works of radical human sympathy, written with cliff-walking
literary genius. His books involve us in the
implosion of the spirit, and the fragility of
personal salvation. Johnson’s work lays bare our
faltering human glory and shame. From the stirring, surreal
incantation that is Train Dreams, to the meticulous hyperreality
of Tree of Smoke, his reach will always be profound. Although I never had
the chance to meet him, I mourn Denis Johnson’s
loss personally, as a reader and fellow writer. I’m glad he took pleasure in
receiving this grand recognition. Everyone who reads Denis Johnson
comes away thinking he has spoken directly to some wracked and
ragged, yet transcendent, aspect of their own secret heart.>>Sam Nicholson: From
Jonathan Franzen. “You can tell he started as a poet. His sentences, at their best, are
miracles of transparency and tone. Perfect in the way
they inhabit the page, but devoid of vanity
about their perfection. Always vivid in their
reference to the actual, but also always conveying
something larger. Their creator’s own
self-knowledge and compassion, and sense of cosmic comedy.”>>Marie Arana: And this
from Marilynne Robinson. “I have never known a writer who
was so identical with his work, whose thoughts and passions
and energies were so entirely of one substance with the
world he remade as fiction. The great energy of his
imagination was a fusion of honesty and seriousness, pain and laughter. His life was a thing
of moment and urgency. Pure and undistracted.”>>Susan Kamil: And
this from Zadie Smith. “No writer was more admired by
his peers than Denis Johnson. His thousands of readers
adored him too, of course, but for writers there was an
added layer of professional awe. How does one go about writing a
book as luminous as Train Dreams? How were the stories of Jesus’ Son
constructed, with their seamless mix of the sacred and profane? So much of Denis’ fiction
reads like apocrypha from some long-suppressed
American bible. I loved it all. He worked at a level
different from the rest of us. A true master.”>>Sam Nicholson: From
Nathan Englander. “I fell in love with Denis Johnson’s
writing in the purest way possible. Someone, I can’t remember who, gave
me a Xeroxed copy of the first story in Jesus’ Son, Car
Crash While Hitchhiking. If you look at the book, you’ll
see Denis Johnson’s name is absent from the margins. And, not even the whole
title of the story is there. So, I read what I thought
was called Car Crash, a standalone story by
an anonymous author. I was instantly blown away. Deeply moved by it, and then, in
the way good reading makes you feel like your connection to it was
faded, I soon ended up with a copy of the collection in
which the story appears. I was living in Iowa City at the
time, and this book, for my friends and me, became sort of
a young writers bible. We marveled at those
stripped-down, honest stories that contained all the
bigness of great work. And, as young writers we
thought, this is the kind of thing that could be done. We took hope away from the
work, is what I’m saying, and we found hope inside
those stories as well. In Car Crash While Hitchhiking,
the narrator ends up back in detox and at rock bottom. He’s hearing voices, seeing things, and acknowledging his
pitiable state, he addresses us, his dear readers. He says quite frankly, ‘and
you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.’ Yes. We did. We expected it and will
continue to expect it, as we return to those stories
and novels and essays and poems, to mine all the help within.”>>Marie Arana: And now, for
the ceremony itself, Robert, would you come back
and confer the prize?>>Robert Newlen: Thank you, Marie,
Susan, and Sam for your commitment to our prize winner and his work. I would now like to
officially bestow the prize. Denis Johnson’s widow, Cindy,
could not be with us today, and has asked that Johnson’s agent, Nicole Aragi, accept
it in her place. Nicole, could you please
come to the stage? Nicole, on behalf of the
Librarian of Congress, I’m pleased to award the 2017
Library of Congress Prize in American Fiction
to Denis Johnson. Please accept this crystal
commemorating the prize.>>Nicole Aragi: Thank you. [ Applause ] OK. As you’ll see, Denis had a
healthy skepticism of authority, institutions, and praise
of any sort. But, deep down, I know he was
proud to receive this anyway. I’m receiving this on behalf of
Denis Johnson’s wife, Cindy Lee. Denis was honored when he heard
he’d been chosen for this award. He said yes, and then
immediately began stewing over it. By the time Marie Arana called in
early May, he had made a decision. He told her, I don’t want some old
white guy winning this award during the Trump administration. [ Laughter ] I’m glad you’re laughing. I’m sure Marie was flabbergasted. I know I was. Even after 28 years together,
he could still surprise me. In the days that followed,
I made my case. I argued that presidents
come and go, while the Library of
Congress abides. And, I insisted that his singular
talent deserved to be recognized by such a noble American
institution. Denis was unmoved. The only caveat I could get out of
him was his belief that the Library of Congress has the right to give
their award to anyone they choose. Everyone is gathered here today because Denis Johnson was
an extraordinary writer, and because he defended freedom,
even when he didn’t approve of it. [inaudible] [ Applause ]>>Robert Newlen: Nicole, we have a
gift from the Library of Congress. This is a notebook of all
the citations– excuse me– of the tributes that we
heard today and others, and we knew the Johnson
family would want to have a permanent copy of this. So, we present it to you.>>Nicole Aragi: Thank you. Thank you. [ Applause ] Thank you so much. I’ve lost it. I’ve lost his award. [ Applause ]>>Robert Newlen: Nicole,
thank you so much. And, thanks to all of you who
have joined us in remembering one of America’s greatest writers. We at the Library are also
thankful we had the opportunity to award him our highest
honor in fiction, and we hope you will help us keep
his work alive into the future. We also hope you will take the
opportunity to hear the wealth of other voices we have here today
at the National Book Festival, a testament to the power of writing. Thank you so much.>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at loc.gov.

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