PEN Center USA’s annual awards program, established in 1982, is a unique, regional competition that recognizes literary excellence in eleven categories: fiction, creative nonfiction, research nonfiction, poetry, children’s literature, graphic literature, translation, journalism, drama, teleplay, and screenplay. Past award winners include Barbara Kingsolver, Maxine Hong Kingston, T.C. Boyle, and Paul Thomas Anderson. Each year, PEN Center USA calls for submissions of work produced or published during one calendar year by writers living west of the Mississippi River. Entries in the eleven categories are reviewed and judged by panels of distinguished writers, critics, and editors. Winners are announced the following fall and each receives a $1,000 cash prize, a free year of membership with PEN Center USA, and an invitation to the Annual Literary Awards Festival in Los Angeles.
The Literary Awards Festival is held in Beverly Hills and includes a dinner, a silent auction or raffle, and the presentation of The Literary Awards and honoree awards. This gala is the only one of its scope on the West Coast and is attended by more than 400 prominent members of the literary community. Past recipients of the Award of Honor and Lifetime Achievement Award include Ray Bradbury, Elmore Leonard, Carolyn See, Gore Vidal, and Billy Wilder. The evening also features the presentation of the prestigious First Amendment Award, given to a candidate who has done work in the domestic United States to protect the First Amendment, as well as the Freedom to Write Award, given to a candidate who has fought for freedom of expression internationally. Both awards honor men and women who have produced exceptional work in the face of extreme adversity, who have been punished for exercising their freedom of expression, or who have fought against censorship and defended the right to publish freely.