Junot Diaz Wins Sargent First Novel Prize

By Neal Comment

Junot Diaz (center) with fiancée Elizabeth de Leon and Riverhead editor Sean McDonald; photo by Christopher Peterson

While I spent Monday night at the CLMP spelling bee, Beaufort Books associate publisher Margot Atwell went to another literary fundraising event—the awards ceremony for the Mercantile Library Center for Fiction awards banquet, where Junot Diaz won the second annual John Sargent, Sr. First Novel Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. “During the cocktail hour before the main event,” Margot emailed me last night, “I was asked more than once if I was one of the writers being honored. Perhaps I seemed writerly, or just out of place among the well-heeled supporters of the Mercantile Library who were drinking, chatting, and bidding on luxury trips and gifts in a silent auction.”

“After we had been herded into the banquet hall, we were seated around tables whose centerpieces were stacks of artfully arranged, venerable-looking hardcover books. Then we were informed by one of the many literary movers and shakers who stood up to introduce the event that we were there ‘to eat and give awards,’ a succinct summary of what took place over the next two and a half hours.”

Lore Segal & Drenka Willen, photos by Christopher Peterson

Anne Fadiman stood up to introduce Cynthia Ozick, who had been selected to choose the winner of this year’s Clifton Fadiman Medal for Excellence in Fiction, an award given to a writer whose work deserves recognition and wider readership,” Margot continues. “Ozick fondly introduced Lore Segal, whose work Other People’s Houses she had begged to be allowed to review when it was originally published in the 1960s.

“The next award was the Maxwell E. Perkins Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Field of Fiction, honoring “an editor, publisher, or agent who over the course of his or her career has discovered, nurtured, and championed writers of fiction.” Andrew O’Hagen flew in from England to present the award to his editor, Drenka Willen, whom he called his ‘dream editor.’ (She has also published Italo Calvino, Octavio Paz, Gunter Grass, and poet laureate Charles Simic.) I was delighted to see the beautiful and gracious Ms. Willen win such an appropriate award. Everyone I know in publishing who loves great books speaks about her in hushed tones, their eyes wide with admiration.

“The Sargent First Novel Prize was awarded as we polished off our desserts. In his acceptance speech, Diaz congratulated all his fellow finalists: John Clinch, Daniel Alarcon, Nathan Englander, Austin Grossman, Ehud Havazelet, and Mischa Berlinski. He told the audience that he believes that awards like the one he received are important: ‘I’m a reader way before I’m a writer. Awards like these are a way to get people to read the books we like.'”