Top fiction prize goes to Hazzard

But King dispute underscores divide

November 20, 2003|By Renee Tawa | Renee Tawa,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SHIRLEY Hazzard's long-awaited post-World War II novel won the National Book Award for fiction last night, although a dispute over an honorary medal awarded to Stephen King threatened to overshadow this year's winners at a New York ceremony.

Hazzard's book, The Great Fire (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), was her first published work of fiction in more than 20 years. The Australian-born novelist lives in New York.

The nonfiction prize was awarded to Yale University professor Carlos Eire, for Waiting for Snow in Havana (Free Press), a memoir about his Havana-based family living under Fidel Castro's reign in Cuba. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet C.K. Williams, who teaches at Princeton University, took top honors in the poetry category for his collection The Singing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

In the Young People's Literature category, Polly Horvath, a finalist in 1999, won for The Canning Season (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

The annual awards recognize works of exceptional merit written by Americans.

King, 56, received a sustained standing ovation when introduced for the 2003 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, an award that previously has gone to such literary giants as Saul Bellow, Eudora Welty and Philip Roth. The award is given by the foundation's board of directors to an American author "who has enriched the literary landscape through a lifetime of service or body of work."

The dispute over King's selection underscored the divide between writers who achieve popular acclaim - more than 300 million copies of King's books are in print - and those who receive critical acclaim - mainly works of literary fiction by writers whose names are not as widely known, such as Jonathan Franzen or Alice Munro.

The decision also prompted esteemed literary critic Harold Bloom to write in a much-discussed Los Angeles Times commentary that it marked "another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life."

Other critics defended the choice: "The carping about King's award reflects an elitism that borders on being a death wish," wrote Columbia University journalism professor Samuel G. Freeman in a USA Today commentary.

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