Don DeLillo becomes first writer to receive the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction

Don DeLillo, who has been called 'chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction,' is the author of works that include 'White Noise' and 'Underworld.'

Stephen Chernin/AP
Don DeLillo will make a rare public appearance at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, this September, to receive his award.

We’re not sure what we’re more excited about, the nation’s newest book prize or the novelist who received it.

Don DeLillo, one of America’s most celebrated writers, is the first recipient of the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, Librarian of Congress James Billington announced Thursday. 

Dubbed the “chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction” by the New York Review of Books, DeLillo is known for “paint[ing] detailed portraits of American life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries,” writes Goodreads.

“Like Dostoyevsky, Don DeLillo probes deeply into the sociopolitical and moral life of his country,” Billington said in the Library of Congress’s official announcement. "Over a long and important career, he has inspired his readers with the diversity of his themes and the virtuosity of his prose.” 

Author of more than a dozen novels, DeLillo is best known for his critically acclaimed works including the National Book Award winner, “White Noise,” a satire on the effects of mass culture and technology; “Underworld,” on the effects of the Cold War on American culture; and “Libra,” on the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

“When I received news of this award, my first thoughts were of my mother and father, who came to this country the hard way, as young people confronting a new language and culture," DeLillo told the Library of Congress. "In a significant sense, the Library of Congress prize is the culmination of their efforts and a tribute to their memory."

DeLillo is known for his postmodern novels that explore that mess and madness of modern times: mass media, terrorism, political violence, corporate corruption, and consumerism.

Here’s what Philip Roth, the great American writer who recently announced his retirement, said of DeLillo at the Saul Bellow Award: The “combination of terror and comedy and sheer song” in his writing means that “everyone wants to give Don DeLillo an award."

No kidding. DeLillo is has won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the PEN/Saul Bellow Award, and was a finalist twice for the Pulitzer Prize.

And now, of course, he is the first recipient of the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction.

The prize honors American literary writers “whose body of work is distinguished not only for its mastery of the art but for its originality of thought and imagination,” the Library said in a statement. “The award seeks to commend strong, unique, enduring voices that – throughout long, consistently accomplished careers – have told us something about the American experience.”

The prize was inspired by the Library’s prior award, the Library of Congress Lifetime Achievement Award for the Writing of Fiction, as well as the Library of Congress Creative Achievement Award, which was previously awarded to John Grisham, Isabel Allende, Toni Morrison, and Philip Roth.

The Library’s new inaugural award will be presented to DeLillo in September at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, where attendees will enjoy a rare treat: the chance to hear DeLillo, who rarely participates in public appearances or book tours, speak.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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