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Silber's 'Improvement' awarded PEN/Faulkner fiction prize

| Friday, April 6, 2018, 4:16 p.m.
Joan Silber's novel 'Improvement'
Joan Silber's novel 'Improvement'

Joan Silber's novel “Improvement” has won the 2018 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

A series of interlinked stories, “Improvement” revolves around a single mother in Harlem whose boyfriend schemes to make money off smuggled cigarettes. The novel moves among different points of view, across time and around the world.

In a statement this week, the judges wrote, “The art of this exquisite novel rests in Silber's ability to weave the lives of her characters together into a complete whole, providing readers with intimate glimpses into the delicate and often unseen challenges of unassuming, everyday people.”

Reviewing the book last year for The Washington Post, Charles Finch lamented that Silber's work “has been too little loved, too little mentioned, beyond a small readership that seems to be composed mostly of other writers.” He went on to predict that the moment might finally be right for Silber, who is 72. “Once every so often the literary community picks an older writer up on its shoulders ... and says, look, look at what this person's been doing all along. Maybe it's Silber's turn.”

He was right. Last month, “Improvement” also won the National Book Critics Circle fiction prize.

In a career that spans 30 years, Silber has published eight works of fiction. She lives in New York and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and Warren Wilson College. Two of her previous collections of linked stories, “Ideas of Heaven” and “Fools,” were finalists for the National Book Award.

At the PEN/Faulkner award ceremony on May 5 at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., Silber will receive $15,000. Each of the finalists — Hernán Díaz, Samantha Hunt, Achy Obejas and Jesmyn Ward — will receive $5,000. All five authors will read from their work.

This year's judges were Andrea Barrett, Stacey D'Erasmo and Alex Espinoza. They considered about 450 novels and short story collections by American authors published in the United States in 2017.

The PEN/Faulkner Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 1980, hosts public readings throughout the year and coordinates Writers in Schools, a program that brings leading authors to public and public charter schools in Washington.

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