Christopher Hitchens, Arguably (Twelve)

The PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for Art of the Essay aims to preserve the dignity and esteem that the essay form imparts to literature. The winner receives a cash award of $5,000 and will be honored at the PEN Literary Awards.

There are no restrictions on the subject matter of the essays; books are judged solely on the basis of literary character and distinction of writing, and equal consideration is given to the work of both renowned essayists and more recently established writers. Essays may deal either with a range of subjects or may explore one specific theme, but the book, taken as a whole, should be a series of individual essays, not conceived as a single booklength work of nonfiction. Individual essays included in books may have been previously published in magazines, journals, or anthologies.

In 1991 PEN Member and author Barbaralee Diamonstein and Carl Spielvogel, former New York Times columnist, founded the PEN/Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award for the Art of the Essay to preserve the dignity and esteem that the essay form imparts to literature. The award took a hiatus from 2005-2010. Recent recipients of the award are David Bromwich’s Skeptical Music, David Quammen’s The Boilerplate Rhino, Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being, Marilynne Robinson’s The Death of Adam, Adam Hochschild’s Finding the Trapdoor, Cynthia Ozick’s Fame and Folly, Thomas Nagel’s Other Voices: Critical Essays 1969-1994, and Frederick Crews’s The Critics Bear It Away: American Fiction and the Academy.

2012 Judges

Robert Boyers, Janet Malcolm, and Ruth Reichl

From the Judges’ Citation

Arguably is a book of essays astonishingly wide-ranging and provocative, taking on everything from Middle Eastern politics to Thomas Jefferson and Prince Charles, from Lolita and Ezra Pound to Hitler, Saul Bellow and Hugo Boss. Though it is no secret that Christopher Hitchens was a polymathic polemicist, this volume demonstrates—not for the first time—that he could write with fervor about the books and writers he loved and with unbridled venom about ideas and political figures he loathed. Erudite, sometimes playful, often in dead earnest, Hitchens is clearly in love with the tools of his trade, writing with undisguised brio, mining the resources of the language as if alert to every possibility of color and inflection. Richly allusive, bristling and often implacable, Hitchens’ voice is distinctive, especially in his longer essays, which are not merely informed but informative and beautifully considered. Hitchens wrote in his memoir, Hitch 22, that he always wanted to contain multitudes, and the essays collected in Arguably demonstrate that he did. To read Hitchens’ massive volume is to feel that the essay is alive and well and that the best essays are expressions not merely of conviction but of temperament. Non serviam was Hitchens’ motto, but he was also a writer for whom the instinct to praise and admire was ever an aspect of the available writerly equipment.”


André Aciman, Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere

“The essays of Andre Aciman collected in the volume Alibis explore a wide range of memories and sensations, places and stories, evoking sights and textures and incidents and confusions with an elegance and color rare in contemporary English-language non-fiction. Ranging from Rome and Venice to New York, Barcelona, and Provence, Aciman’s essays are often saturated with sharp stabs of feeling. Often the writer longs for sensations recalled from childhood or other early stages in his own development: longs for longing, for shame, for sensuous or disturbing dreams. For all the poignant wanderlust they express, the essays are at bottom deeply introspective works, excursions in sometimes lacerating self-interrogation. At their best, Aciman’s essays move uneasily between infatuation and irony, wonder and sophistication, evoking memory as a transaction with the past “rewritten,” as Mark Doty once wrote, “in the direction of feeling.”

Robert Gottlieb, Lives and Letters

“In Lives and Letters, Robert Gottleib romps through the end of the twentieth century, chronicling some of its most fascinating citizens. What makes this book important, however, is not his fine ear, keen eye, or endless curiosity: it is that he teaches us the true meaning of appreciation. Woven through each beautifully written essay is the author’s unalloyed pleasure in the writers, dancers, artists, and performers that are the subjects of his book. Gottleib’s great talent is to make the most commonplace subject fascinating while bringing the most celebrated among them crashing down to earth. Erudite, measured, and wry, Lives and Letters shows us that the subject is unimportant: in the hands of a gifted writer, everyone is interesting.”

Past Winners

Mark Slouka, Stewart Justman, William H. Gass, David Bromwich, David Quamman, Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson, Adam Hochschild, Cynthia Ozick, Thomas Nagel, John Brinckerhoff Jackson, Stanely Fish, Frederick Crews, David B. Morris, Martha Nussbaum, and Bernard Knox