When PEN Center USA West informed George Cothran that his story in the San Francisco Weekly had won its 1996 Literary Award for Journalism, Cothran knew he was excited but not really why.
"To be honest, PEN is an entity I had only a vague awareness of," said Cothran, whose story headlined "Shut Up, Little Man" traced how the drunken bickering of two aging roommates inspired an international cult following. "So I had to formulate my own sense of how important this is. I kept going around to friends asking 'Is this really big? This is pretty cool--isn't it?' People who knew more were much more incredibly rapt with the idea of my winning this award."
Gradually, Cothran found out. PEN West is a branch of International PEN, an organization of writers founded in 1921 by George Bernard Shaw and Joseph Conrad, among others. Along the way, it became known for fostering freedom of expression.
The PEN West Literary Awards, announced last week, honor professional writers in 10 categories. PEN West honors only writers who live west of the Mississippi--with one St. Louis resident nominee this year making the cut by exactly three blocks. Past winners include such notables as T.C. Boyle, Barbara Kingsolver and Thom Gunn. Although the $500 monetary award is slight, it can mean a great deal.
"Stacey Levine, who won the fiction award in 1994, said it would make a difference in being able to pay rent," recalls Sherrill Britton, executive director of PEN West.
But the awards pay off in other ways too. Britton says nominee Eleanor Ayer, upon hearing that her book "Parallel Journeys" was a finalist for this year's children's literature prize, sent a letter describing the joy the news brought the subject of her book, Holocaust survivor Helen Wateford. Wateford believed this meant her message of peace and understanding was getting out there. Wateford died shortly thereafter, and Ayer said the honor brought considerable peace to her last days.
Cothran agrees that recognition can be most encouraging, particularly if it's a new experience.
"Pats on the back from friends and my mother aren't quite the same," he jokes. "This is the first time I've gotten out of the little circle of family and friends. It has given me a new perspective on my career. And now I know this is incredibly prestigious and I'm very full of myself."
Cothran also said he was honored to be in the same company as fiction winner Pete Dexter, who won for his novel "The Paperboys." The novel is about two journalists investigating the case of a man awaiting execution, though Dexter says it's more about ethics and compulsiveness. About his award, however, Dexter is fairly unassuming and common-sensical.
"The whole thing about awards is you sort of have to take them with a grain of salt," he says dryly. "You can't let it count for too much to yourself."
Submissions for the PEN awards come mainly from publishers or producers. Panels of three judges narrow each category to about five finalists.
This year there were 750 entries, with nonfiction as the largest category. The ultimate winner there was "Drowning in the Sea of Love," part essay collection, part memoir by Al Young.
Britton says the categories of screenwriting and teleplay produce winners grateful to be recognized by literary types, because they often aren't seen as such. She admits there is a bit of a problem with these categories; it is not uncommon for a number of writers to work on a single screenplay but Writers Guild rules require that the work add up to a certain percentage of the finished version for the writer to get official credit.
"We can only go by what the Writers Guild did," Britton says. "We couldn't possibly get in the middle of that."
The 1996 PEN Center USA West Literary Award winners are:
* Fiction: Pete Dexter, "The Paperboys" (Random House).
* Nonfiction: Al Young, "Drowning in the Sea of Love" (Ecco Press).
* Poetry: Carl Rakosi, "Poems 1923-1941" (Sun & Moon Press).
* Translation: Red Pine (pen name of William Porter), for "Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom" by Sung Po-jen (Mercury House). The sole copy of the original was passed down for 500 years. Pine found a copy of a reprint days before the Tiananmen Square uprising.
* Children's literature: Cynthia Rylant, "The Van Gogh Cafe" (Harcourt Brace); mystical things happen in a small cafe.
* Journalism: George Cothran's "Shut Up, Little Man," published in the San Francisco Weekly, detailed what happened when audiotapes of his next-door neighbors' constant noisy quarrels made them international cult heroes.
* Drama: A tie between Philip Kan Gotanda, for "Ballad of Yachiyo," and Simon Levy, for "Tender Is the Night."
* Screenplay: William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert for "Apollo 13."
* Teleplay: A tie between Charles Fuller, for "Zooman," and John Hopkins, for "Hiroshima."
* Body of Work in Criticism: Film critic Pauline Kael.