Thursday, November 20, 2003

Stephen King Gets Honorary National Book Award

Thursday, November 20, 2003

NEW YORK — Weakened by pneumonia and still limping from a 1999 road accident, Stephen King (search), accepting an honorary National Book Award (search), received a long standing ovation after making his case for popular writers.

But not everyone cheered his acceptance speech Wednesday night, including Shirley Hazzard (search), whose novel "The Great Fire," a sophisticated romantic novel set just after World War II, took the coveted fiction prize.

The 56-year-old King, whose many best sellers include "Carrie" and "The Shining," acknowledged that some thought him unworthy of a prize previously won by Philip Roth (search) and Arthur Miller (search) among others. He called for publishing people to spend more time reading writers like himself.

Hazzard, who writes in longhand on yellow legal pads and took more than a decade to complete her winning novel, rejected the notion.

"I don't think giving us a reading list of those who are most read at this moment is much of a satisfaction," said Hazzard.

Other winners Wednesday included Carlos Eire (search), who received the nonfiction prize for "Waiting for Snow in Havana"; Polly Horvath, winner in the young people's category for "The Canning Season," and C.K. Williams, the poetry winner for "The Singing."

Each received $10,000. Finalists got $1,000.

The National Book Awards are both dress-up time for the publishing industry, with a red carpet laid outside, and a fund-raiser for the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization that charged $1,000 a seat.

For the most part, it was King's kind of crowd. At $12,000 a table, the horror author had bought up five, and several of the night's nominees praised him as a gifted storyteller and a friend to fellow writers.

"He is one of the sweethearts of literature," fiction finalist T. Coraghessan Boyle told The Associated Press. "He has done so much for other writers."

King's speech was humorous, sentimental and defiant. He remembered his early years of writing, the typewriter sandwiched in the laundry room between the washer and dryer. He said he had been ready to give up on "Carrie," now a modern horror classic, only to be talked out of by his wife, Tabitha.

He also urged the book foundation not to make his award a case of "tokenism," an isolated tribute to commercially successfully writers. And he called on the industry as a whole to pay more attention, saying he had no "use for those who make a point of pride in saying they have never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark or any other popular writer."

"What do you think," he asked, "you get social academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?"

While King and Hazzard both celebrated the diversity of literature, you couldn't ask for two more different writers. King has written dozens of novels. Before "The Great Fire," Hazzard had not completed a work of fiction since the early 1980s. King was an early champion of the e-book. Hazzard does not own a television or even an answering machine.

And she has never read a Stephen King book.

"I just haven't had time to get around to one," she said, citing Shakespeare and Joseph Conrad as current priorities.

Just about everyone Wednesday seemed to have a point to make. Eire noted that he could have never published his book, a memoir about growing up in Cuba and his departure after the rise of Fidel Castro (news - web sites), back in his home country. The head judge for the young people's prize, Susan Campbell Bartoletti, said the boundaries between children's literature and books for grown-ups were breaking down. Mystery writer Walter Mosley, who hosted the ceremony, had special praise for the poetry finalists.

"Without our poets, we really don't have a heart," he said.

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