At its annual awards ceremony at NYU’s Skirball Center on February 20, pioneering gay author Edmund White accepted the PEN American Center’s 2018 Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. The award, which was announced on February 8, comes with a $25,000 stipend and is given each year to “a living American author whose scale of achievement in fiction, over a sustained career, places him or her in the highest rank of American literature.”
In choosing White for the award, this year’s judges — Louise Erdrich, Adam Johnson, and Porochista Khakpour — praised White, 78, “for his honest, beautifully wrought, and fiercely defiant books, and his body of work including the autobiographical trilogy: ‘A Boy’s Own Story, ‘The Beautiful Room is Empty,’ and ‘The Farewell Symphony.’”
“Unsentimental tenderness, sharply observant wit, and an unsparing examination of the self mark the fiction of this year’s winner,” the judges said in a written statement. “To the age of AIDS, the age of loss, the struggle against evangelical Christian hatred, the explosion of gender identities, Edmund White employs a deceptively light touch.”
White has published 13 novels and is working on his next, to be titled “A Saint in Texas.” He is also the author of nonfiction works including 1977’s “The Joy of Gay Sex,” four memoirs, and biographies of three French writers — Jean Genet, Marcel Proust, and Arthur Rimbaud — for which the government of France named him Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1993. He has also received the Publishing Triangle’s Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement, among many other honors.
“In these politically correct days, I suppose it helps being gay,” White noted after being informed of the honor, “although the latest surveys show that the American public, after having been for gays, has now turned slightly against them. I don’t know. But anyway, I’m glad it’s happening. And I think it is, for sure, partly a recognition of my minority status.”
Following the PEN ceremony, White told Gay City News he was gratified by the award but he took the opportunity to acknowledge the current politic and cultural climate as well as the legacy of AIDS.
It seems strange to be gay and to get this recognition in America,” he said.
Asked what other gay writers he would like to see receive more acclaim and support, White pointed to writers from “all that generation that was cut off by AIDS.” HIV-positive and one of the founders of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, White specifically mentioned “a gay writer from the ‘80s who died [in 1991 from AIDS-related causes] after his first book, Allen Barnett,” as well as Paul Monette, who died, also from AIDS-related illness, in 1995.
“There are scores of them,” White concluded.