Shirley Hazzard's long-awaited post-World War II novel won the National Book Award for fiction Wednesday night in New York. And Stephen King, the controversial recipient of an honorary medal, received a sustained standing ovation.
Hazzard, 72, said the ceremony was "very delightful." She said she "knew nothing whatsoever" of the King controversy, which had touched off a fierce debate on popular writers versus literary writers when his selection for a lifetime achievement honor was announced last month. Hazzard's "The Great Fire" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) was her first published work of fiction since "The Transit of Venus" in 1981.
In "The Great Fire," she said in a phone interview after the ceremony, "I have tried to return to the world events of my early youth in the Far East, and the feeling after the war, the feeling of hope that was among some of us, especially young people, that mankind could learn to live without an enemy.
"I retrieved a part of my life that was waiting for me. I'm so pleased people noticed it."
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).
Three Southern California writers -- two of whom are USC English professors -- were among the 20 finalists for the annual awards, which recognize works of exceptional merit written by Americans. Nominees included USC's T.C. Boyle for his novel "Drop City" (Viking/Penguin); USC's Carol Muske-Dukes, for her volume of poetry "Sparrow" (Random House); and Marianne Wiggins for "Evidence of Things Unseen" (Simon & Schuster).
Also among the nominees was Northern California writer Paul Fleischman in the Young People's Literature category for "Breakout" (Cricket Books).
King, 56, received 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 body of work.
The controversy 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 and Yale professor 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.
King, surrounded by a security detail, accepted the medal and returned the $10,000 cash award to the National Book Foundation. With three of the four winners, Farrar, Straus and Giroux may be the biggest victor: Winning books often enjoy a boost in sales and visibility that can lead to other prestigious awards.