James Wilcox, October 2011
Acclaimed author James Wilcox was named recipient of the prestigious Louisiana Writer Award for 2011. He was honored by the Louisiana Center for the Book in the State Library of Louisiana for his extraordinary contributions to the state’s literary heritage that is exemplified by his body of work. Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and State Librarian Rebecca Hamilton recognized Wilcox at an award ceremony at the beginning of the 2011 Louisiana Book Festival on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2011, during which Wilcox discussed his writing career. An additional festival program featured Wilcox discussing his work with author and humorist Roy Blount Jr.
The Louisiana Writer Award is given annually to recognize outstanding contributions to the literary and intellectual life of Louisiana. Past recipients include novelist and short story writer Tim Gautreaux; children’s author William Joyce; poets Yusef Komunyakaa and William Jay Smith; historian Carl A. Brasseaux; novelists James Lee Burke, Ernest J. Gaines, Shirley Ann Grau, Elmore Leonard and Valerie Martin; and scholar Lewis P. Simpson.
"Louisiana is home to one of the finest groups of storytellers assembled in one place," said Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne. "Louisiana’s history and passionate people also give rise to the rich and abounding stories that are told about her. The Louisiana Writer Award celebrates the best of these storytellers and stories."
Wilcox, currently Director of Creative Writing at LSU, is the author of nine novels, most of which are set in or feature characters from Tula Springs, La. About the first of these, Modern Baptists, Robert Penn Warren commented, “...James Wilcox has made a tale that is realistic and fantastic, painfully comic, and, in a strange way, psychologically penetrating. …There is no writer exactly like him. He is an original.” Since its 1983 release, Modern Baptists has been included in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon and listed in GQ’s 45th anniversary issue as one of the best works of fiction published in the past 45 years.
"James Wilcox and his enduring and on-going work, from Modern Baptists to Hunk City, exemplify Louisiana’s rich cultural and literary heritage," said State Librarian Rebecca Hamilton. "Born in Hammond, James has drawn on his Louisiana experience to create unforgettable residents of his fictional Tula Springs. Though it doesn’t really exist, anyone who lives in Louisiana has been there or knows somebody who lives there."
Wilcox’s other novels include North Gladiola (1985), Miss Undine's Living Room (1987), Sort of Rich (1989), Polite Sex (1991), Guest of a Sinner (1993), Plain and Normal (1998), Heavenly Days (2003) and Hunk City (2007), most of which are set in fictional Tula Springs, LA. Guest of a Sinner is set in NYC with characters from Tallahassee. Polite Sex and Plain and Normal are set mainly in NYC, but they do have a few characters that come from Tula Springs.
"Wilcox, with the creation of the inhabitants of Tula Springs, holds a mirror up to ourselves, and with characteristic humor lets us simultaneously laugh at and appreciate ourselves, celebrating our uniqueness and also our universality," added Hamilton.
With the release of Modern Baptists, Anne Tyler on the front page of The New York Times Book Review wrote, “Every reviewer, no doubt, has methods for marking choice passages in a book. Mine is a system of colored paper clips; yellow means funny. Modern Baptists should be thick with yellow clips on every page, but it does even better than that. While I was reading it, I laughed so hard I kept forgetting my paper clips. Mr. Wilcox has real comic genius. He is a writer to make us all feel hopeful.”
Walker Percy called this same novel "a beauty." In 1998 in U.S. News & World Report, Toni Morrison counted Modern Baptists among her three "favorite works by unsung writers." In 2005 Modern Baptists was reissued in Great Britain in a Penguin Modern Classics edition with an introduction by the novelist Jim Crace.
Wilcox’s short stories have appeared in The New Yorker and Avenue. In 1986 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. About his 1987 novel, Miss Undine’s Living Room, Kirkus Reviews wrote, "Not even John Updike is writing this well about American social reality and absurdity…Wilcox again persuades that he’s a master." In the Village Voice Literary Supplement, Bill Marx wrote of Wilcox’s fourth novel, “Maturity, with its deeper and darker humor, makes Sort of Rich Wilcox’s most Chekhovian book yet, further evidence that Tula Springs is fast becoming one of America’s more fertile chunks of literary real estate.” Of this same novel, Chilton Williamson Jr. commented in National Review, "Wilcox…is an infinitely more clever and witty writer than [Sinclair] Lewis, with a genuine comic genius…. And there is…a spiritual quality to everything I have read by this writer: a thing that is rarely discernible in contemporary fiction and that, deftly infused by Wilcox’s light touch, amounts merely (!) to a quiet insistence upon the moral nature of man."
In 1996 The Spectator (London) wrote, "The best American writing came in the form of reissues of James Wilcox’s novels…." The New Yorker commented about his 1998 novel, Plain and Normal, "Wilcox is an American Voltaire—a funny guy, seriously interested in faith, hope, and charity…." Like Plain and Normal (which has been published in Hebrew in Israel), Wilcox’s eighth novel, Heavenly Days, was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book. About his most recent novel Laura Albritton wrote in the Harvard Review (No. 33), "Hunk City is the ninth novel from writer James Wilcox, arguably our most talented contemporary American satirist, and indisputably the most devastating satirist of the South today." In O: The Oprah Magazine Patricia Clarkson wrote in 2005 that Wilcox "writes about the South I know: the complicated, intelligent, educated, integrated, contemporary South…. He is sexy and passionate and messy." In his book The Real South, Scott Romine writes, "Perhaps no writer since James Thurber has so elegantly linked the absurd and the everyday.…Wilcox is arguably the late South’s foremost literary cartographer; he is also, I suggest, the late South’s most perceptive novelist of manners."
Wilcox worked at Random House and Doubleday in New York after graduating from Yale. Wilcox’s book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, and Elle. He has been a judge for the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for the best first-published book of fiction by an American writer published in 1991; for the 1994 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award; for the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society novella contest in 1999; and for the Eudora Welty Prize for Fiction given by The Southern Review in 2005. Wilcox was the Robert Penn Warren Professor from 2004-2007 and then the Donald and Velvia Crumbley Professor from 2007-2010.
Wilcox was the recipient an ATLAS grant for 2007-2008. LSU recognized him as the 2008 Distinguished Research Master of Arts, Humanities, & Social Sciences. In 2009 he won an LSU Distinguished Faculty Award. In 2010 he was appointed to his current MacCurdy Distinguished Professorship in English.