Award puts novelist Chang-rae Lee among literary greats Ernest Hemingway and Vladimir Nabokov.
Chang-rae Lee has been honored with the Award of Merit for the Novel by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Lee, the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor in the Department of English in the School of Humanities and Sciences, is the author of six novels.
The Award of Merit is given by the Academy each year in rotation to an “outstanding person in America” representing one of five arts: painting, the short story, sculpture, the novel, poetry, and drama. There have only been 14 prior awardees in the novel category since the award was first given in 1944. Those include some of the most-well known literary figures of all time including Vladimir Nabokov, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, and John O’Hara.
“On the list of awardees are many of my literary heroes, writers whom I’d revered and idolized as a kid, and still think about and read with my students now,” said Lee, who teaches in Stanford’s Creative Writing Program. “So the recognition is quite startling, and satisfying, and deeply humbling all at once.”
Lee’s most recent novel, My Year Abroad (Penguin Random House, 2021), became a national bestseller. He is also the author of five other novels: Native Speaker (1995); A Gesture Life (1999); Aloft (2004); The Surrendered (2008), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and On Such a Full Sea (2014), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle.
“Since his debut Native Speaker appeared in 1995, Chang-rae Lee has been a major figure in American letters and one of the most important voices in contemporary fiction,” said Patrick Phillips, professor of English and interim director of the Creative Writing Program. “His latest novel, My Year Abroad, has gotten much richly-deserved acclaim and reaffirms his place at the very center of so many conversations in the 21st century.”
Lee’s novels have won numerous other awards and citations, including the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, the American Book Award, and the American Library Association Notable Book of the Year Award. He has also written stories and articles for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Time (Asia), Granta, Conde Nast Traveler, Food & Wine, and many other publications.
“Coming Home Again,” a 1995 essay by Lee that appeared in the New Yorker, was recently made into a film. The tender essay chronicled the author’s reflections after caring for his mother in upstate New York in her final days battling gastric cancer. It also movingly explored the roles we play in our families. Director Wayne Wang, who is known for the film adaptation of Joy Luck Club and hits like Maid in Manhattan, created the film which premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
“We’ve been incredibly lucky to have Chang-rae teaching at Stanford since 2016,” Phillips said. “It’s no surprise to anyone who has read Chang-rae’s work or studied with him in a workshop that he would be recognized by the American Academy of Arts and Letters and given a prize for ‘excellence in the craft of the novel.’ It’s a tremendous honor, awarded by some of the most esteemed writers in the country.”
Lee said he feels very fortunate to be part of the Stanford community. “Our writing program is one the best in the country, no doubt because of the brilliance of my colleagues and their unstinting dedication to our talented and passionate students,” he said.
The award for Lee includes a $25,000 prize. The Academy’s 300 members propose candidates for the annual literary awards and a rotating committee of writers selects the winners.