James Wolcott, Critical Mass (Doubleday)

The PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the 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 $10,000 and will be honored at the PEN Literary Awards.


Geoff Dyer, Stanley Fish, Ariel Levy, and Cheryl Strayed

From the Judges’ Citation

It is difficult to know what to admire more, James Wolcott’s panoramic and encyclopedic variety—he writes on a huge canvas with a cast of characters numbering in the thousands—or the precise structuring of individual sentences that can be Swiftian in their tendency to go on and on and be chock-full of names, places, put-downs, bric-a-brac, all wrapped in a contagious pleasure in the fecundity of language, or Wildean in their concise and wicked performance of precision bombing. When he says about critic Manny Farber that he “always packed his pieces with rock salt” so that “the spray of his densely packed sentences left a wide pockmark” he could well be writing about himself. When he concludes a comparison of Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Hitchcock by declaring that “Ravens belong on both men’s shoulders, perched forevermore,” he simultaneously conjures up a comic, surrealistic image, makes a serious literary-critical claim, and teases us with the echo of Poe’s “nevermore” (itself an echo) which is turned quite marvelously into an assertion of timeless value. And when he says of Michael Mann’s movie Heat that “each character carries an abyss inside,” he invites us to recall in juxtaposition the haunted faces of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino,Val Kilmer, and Jon Voight, faces that are the real plot of Mann’s masterpiece. And what can we say about a critic who can at one moment be telling us about “Updike’s hard fist of meaning” and in the next moment convincing us that there is meaning to be found and savored in the Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedies which, he says, “have kept their crease and slant”? Well, we can say that he is a master of his craft and a more than worthy recipient of the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.


Forty-One False Starts (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Janet Malcolm
Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls (Little, Brown and Company), David Sedaris
The Faraway Nearby (Viking Adult), Rebecca Solnit
Critical Mass (Doubleday), James Wolcott


Makers of Modern Architecture, Volume II (New York Review Books), Martin Filler
The Kraus Project (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Jonathan Franzen
Stories We Tell Ourselves (University of Iowa Press), Michelle Herman
The Blind Masseuse (University of Wisconsin Press), Alden Jones
Forty-One False Starts (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Janet Malcolm
Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls (Little, Brown and Company), David Sedaris
The Faraway Nearby (Viking Adult), Rebecca Solnit
Critical Mass (Doubleday), James Wolcott

Past winners

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

Click here for addtional information, including submission guidelines, for the award.