What do Joan Acocella, Paul Auster, David Markson, Don DeLillo, John Updike, William Vollmann, Deborah Eisenberg, Stephen Sondheim, Reynolds Price, Richard Ford, Garrison Keillor, Jim Harrison, Mary Gordon, John Corigliano and many, many more luminaries in the literary, artistic and music worlds have in common? They all sat on the stage at the American Academy of Arts & Letters‘ Annual Ceremonial, held in the organization’s Harlem-area auditorium to honor the best and brightest in the arts. Some, like Gold Medal for Fiction winner Updike, have been members for nearly half a century; others, like Dana Spiotta, Junot Diaz, Tony D’Souza and Adam Rapp, received generous monetary awards honoring their recent writing-related outputs.
It may just be my own biased viewpoint that makes me think the Academy is a well-kept secret within the current state of the arts community, but then, it might not: while the turnout was strong, it was decidedly bereft of publishing professionals and those under the age of 35. And Academy President Ezra Laderman‘s opening remarks, highlighting how “we’re in an extraordinary time for the arts” thanks to questions about intellectual property, the decline of a proper arts curricula in any American school and eschewing artistic endeavors for market forces, had just the barest whiff of the old school. And yet it was remarkably clear how much the Academy, and its members, care about the arts and about ensuring that promising writers and artists continue the non-profit’s legacy, and how old school values produce a certain dignity that’s easy to admire. One need only listen to Updike’s spare remarks about how his induction into the Academy as its then-youngest member helped further his career by exposing him to peers as well as “magi-like writers” whom he revered. Bestowing awards onto Diaz and Spiotta is a step to the future, and I look with interest to see which younger writers the Academy recognizes from here on in.
A reception followed in the waterlogged Audobon Terrace, where William Vollmann (bedecked in a Hawaiian-like black and yellow shirt, standing out amidst the more formal gear worn by his peers) was introducing his book designer friend to the masses while Markson commented on how his award in literature left him feeling somewhat overwhelmed. All award winners and new Academy members are featured in the gallery across the way beginning May 17th and until June 10.