It’s traditional for the National Book Awards Dinner and Ceremony to be hosted by an emcee who straddles the worlds of publishing and celebrity, and often these luminaries will have had a book of their own released during the previous year – which enables them a good opportunity for cross-promotion, as their books may be included along with the finalists’ titles arrayed on the dinner tables for attendees at the gala to take home with them after the proceedings. Recent previous hosts have included actors John Lithgow and Eric Bogosian, and while the 2014 master-of-ceremonies Daniel Handler isn’t as known for film or stage performances as the aforementioned, his literary alias as Lemony Snicket is the publishing world equivalent of a character role. Of course, he also publishes under his given name, and it was in that guise he carried out his duties on the evening of November 19th.
Though a jocular presence on the dais, his manner reminded me of the sort of kid who in high school was head of the drama club and appeared in all the school plays, a redoubt from which he could wield his evident intelligence to compensate for being otherwise socially awkward and overweight. His attempts at humor throughout the night mostly fell flat. In introductory comments he said the National Book Awards were “like the Oscars – if nobody gave a shit about the Oscars,” and that the prizes recognized “the fiction we meant to have read, the non-fiction we pretend to have read.” Later noting that Graywolf Press is a non-profit publisher, he cracked “if you are a publishing house not interested in making a profit, please see Jeff Bezos after the show.”
The presentations led off with the 2014 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, a lifetime achievement honor recognizing individuals dedicated to expanding the audience for literature. It was given to Kyle Zimmer, President and CEO of First Book, a nonprofit dedicated to providing quality books at little or no cost to children in need since 1992. In her speech Zimmer, dressed in a crisp black tunic and pantsuit, conveyed the objectives of her organization, saying that “we believe books are the most powerful force in the universe, and hosting us supports us,” and went on to express concern that “45% of our children are being raised in homes termed poor or near poor.” After this inspirational message, Handler lamely joked that he was considering creating his own book service, entitled “Last Book: Delivering the last book that you’ll read before you die.”
Another Awardee gave a speech signaling concern for the state of literature and the availability of culture. On stage to receive the Medal For Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Ursula K. Le Guin (presented by Neil Gaiman, who praised her as being someone who “made me a better writer,” and more importantly “made me a better person”) was caustic in her observations about the increasing difficulty of pursuing life as an artist within a progressively corporatized world, one where publishers are merely divisions of larger money-making conglomerates. “I see sales departments gain control over editorial” she said, creating a climate where “profiteers sell us like deodorant”; regarding what this portends looking ahead, she added “I think hard times are coming when we want writers who can see, writers who remember freedom – the realists of a longer reality.” Nonetheless, she intoned a note of hopefulness, averring that people can resist change and change human behavior, and that “resistance and change very often begin in art – in our art,” particularly because “the name of our reward is not profit, it’s freedom.”
When it was time for attendees to feast on the meal including an appetizer of Burrata with Smoked Barramundi and Shaved Fennel (paired with a 2013 Zonin Piniot Grigio), and a main course of Wagyu Strip Loin Steak with fresh Herb Melange Sauce, accompanied with Baby Vegetables tied with Chives, Farro with Zucchini, Carrots and Celery (paired with a 2013 Zonin Montepulciano d’Abruzzo), Handler announced the moment by saying “Gentiles enjoy your dinner, fellow Jews complain about the portion size,” a bit of Borscht Belt-style humor one might have heard at Kutsher’s or the Nevele – in the 1980s at the latest. It was when the four literary Awards commenced, however, that Handler made a stab at ethnic humor that was worse than anachronistic or stale.
What was a triumphal event for Jacqueline Woodson, winning the Award for Young People’s Literature for Brown Girl Dreaming on the occasion of her third time as a Finalist, became overshadowed by comments made by Handler immediately afterward. In her speech Woodson remarked on the relative weights of the medals – given to all 20 Finalists – and the statue given to the winner, saying that “I was complaining yesterday about how heavy the medal is, but this is really heavy,” and also gave a shout-out to elders, offering that “It’s so important to talk to our old people before they become our ancestors.” When returning to the stage Handler offered some impertinent gossip, recalling “I told Jackie she was going to win. And I said that if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned about her this summer – which is that Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon”; after a beat he added “let that settle in your mind.”
People did and it didn’t sit well; the critical reaction in the twittersphere and beyond was immediate and considerable. In response, Handler offered an apology the following day via twitter, tweeting “my job at last night’s National Book Awards #NBAwards was to shine a light on tremendous writers, including Jacqueline Woodson…and not to overshadow their achievements with my own ill-conceived attempts at humor. I clearly failed, and I’m sorry.” On Friday, he atoned further, by donating money to the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books, as well as offering to match any other donations up to $100,000.
Some winning authors were genuinely surprised to hear their names called. Upon having Faithful And Virtuous Night take the Award for Poetry, Louise Glück said “I’m astonished; it takes time to cry – I’m not going to do that.” After the Award for Nonfiction was given to his Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, And Faith In The New China, Evan Osnos also remarked on the unsuspected nature of his good fortune, saying “I am a man of hunches, and I didn’t have a hunch” that he would win. Osnos also referenced his father, former Washington Post reporter, Random House editor and founder of the Public Affairs publishing house Peter Osnos, observing that “I am from a family of the book,” and joking that having his surname in the literary world gave him insight into “how George W. Bush must have felt” when he started out in the political world. Apropos of the analogy, to that I would add it’s a good thing nepotism in journalism or the arts can beget more journalism or art, whereas in politics it tends to produce a sense of entitlement which may lead to unjustified wars and disastrous fiscal policies.
Whether or not Phil Klay had any premonitions before winning the Award for Fiction for Redeployment, which culminated the affair – beating out Anthony Doerr’s much-praised All The Light We Cannot See and Marilynn Robinson’s well-regarded Lila– I myself did after hearing him read two nights earlier at the 5 Under 35 Celebration at PowerHouse Arena in Brooklyn’s DUMBO. Unlike many writers reading their own words, Klay displayed a real sense of drama in the moment, which heightened the impact of his well-crafted and gripping prose, prompting me to predict his win to the scribe seated next to me just before the prize was announced. On the dais Klay referenced his stint as a Marine, initially commenting that “I know there’s at least one Marine in the audience,” which, since “that makes two of us” gave him the confidence that “we can take ’em” (once a soldier always a soldier, I guess). He elaborated upon how his combat experience evolved into his writing, saying “I spent 13 months in Iraq with a truly wonderful group of Marines,” and afterward “came back not knowing what to think” concerning how to talk to fellow soldiers in post-service crisis; ultimately, he felt that “I don’t have the answers to those questions, but the book was the only way” he could begin to find a solution.
His efforts to translate war and its aftermath into something aesthetic and transcendent apparently impressed not only the Fiction judges, but gala attendees as well, as I could find not a single copy of Redeployment remaining on the dinner tables once the ceremonies concluded. I mentioned this fact to Klay when I caught up with him thereafter, as well as relating my correct forecast of his win. When I asked what he might be working on presently, he affirmed a project was underway, but didn’t wish to give any details. At this point the cavernous former bank building on Wall Street began filling up with publishing industry types and their fellow-travelers who either weren’t invited or couldn’t spring for a ticket to the benefit gala for the commencement of the Zelnick Media-sponsored after-party. There they gorged themselves on pigs in a blanket (not the Eastern European kind, but the familiar wiener-wrap morsels microwaved for just about every other reception one attends in New York), disk-shaped ravioli in meat & tomato sauce, mini burgers, French fries, and mini pizzas to fuel themselves for the non-stop boogieing made mandatory by the DJ throb.