The National Book Foundation has awarded its most prestigious writing prize to American author Stephen King. Not everyone in New York's literary community agreed that the best-selling writer of horror stories deserved the honor.
Stephen King, the prolific author of more than 50 books including The Shining, Carrie, and Salem's Lot, was honored with the National Book Foundation's 2003 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. The same award has been bestowed upon some of the greatest literary talents in American history, including Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, and Toni Morrison, leading some critics to object to placing Mr. King in the same category.
Mr. King addressed those naysayers in his keynote speech, saying he always knew he was an outsider when it came to the great authors of his time, and he is tired of reviewers who refuse to take notice of contemporary authors who have mass appeal.
"Nor do I have any patience with or use for those who make a point of pride in saying they have never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark or any other popular writer," he quipped. "What do you think? You get social academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?"
Mr. King told the audience how his wife, Tabitha, who is credited with rescuing his draft of the novel Carrie from the garbage can, had always encouraged him to keep writing, even when they were desperately poor. At the end of his speech, the crowd gave Mr. King a standing ovation.
The National Book Foundation also awarded its annual prizes for best fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and young people's literature.
Shirley Hazzard won the best fiction category for her book, The Great Fire, a novel about two book-lovers in Japan after World War II.
Ms. Hazzard, an Australian-born author who has been nominated for the National Book Award three times, used her time at the podium to address Mr. King.
"I want to say in response to Stephen King, I do not regard literature, which he spoke perhaps in a slightly pejorative way, I do not regard the novel, poetry, a language written, I do not regard it as a competition. It is so vast. We have this marvelous language. We are so lucky that we have a huge audience for that language," she said.
The prize for best non-fiction went to Carlos Eire, a Cuban exile who wrote Waiting for Snow in Havana, a memoir about growing up in Cuba and fleeing to America at the age of 11.
Mr. Eire dedicated his award to his Cuban colleagues.
"There are people in Cuba now in prisons that are not fit for even animals. Their crime: writing," he said. "There are actually several that are in prison for establishing libraries. Hard to believe, but true nonetheless. And it is to these very, very brave men and women that I would like to dedicate this award - the people in prison who cannot speak their minds without paying the heaviest price of all. And may it not only snow in Havana sometime soon, may they be able to speak freely once and for all. Thank you, very much."
Author Polly Horvath won the award for Young People's Literature for her book, The Coming Season, about a young girl who goes to live with two elderly aunts.
C.K. Williams was honored in the best poetry category for his collection called The Singing, which contains poems about growing older and losing loved ones.
Each winner took home a $10,000 prize.