I don’t know how much ink the National Book Awards would have gotten under normal circumstances, but given the events with which today’s papers (on and off line) are understandably crowded, it’s a wonder they got covered at all. Given the brevity of the various news stories about this year’s awards, though, I thought I ought to supply a few more details.
The ceremony was held at the Marriott Marquis, one of the super-monster hotels in the theater district of Manhattan, and a good thing, too–some 900 people showed up. The crowd at the reception was so thick that you could barely get a drink, and it was for all intents and purposes impossible to find anyone you knew (I ran into one of my fellow judges, but only by accident). Inside the ballroom, the tables stretched on and on and on, thus making informed table-hopping similarly impossible. Hence the dinner wasn’t nearly as social an occasion as I’d expected.
The ballroom was full of security–tough guys in tuxes, wearing Secret Service-style earpieces and talking into their hands. I don’t know whether this was standard operating procedure or arose from the fact that Stephen King is in the middle of a much-publicized bout with a stalker, but it seemed clear to me that his presence was part of the reason for their presence. I tried to say hello to him, and a big bruiser shoved himself in front of me and said, “Hey, Mac, you can’t talk ta Mr. King.” On the other hand, he backed down immediately when I told him I was a judge, and I was permitted to pay my respects to the guest of honor.
Of the 900 other guests, only about 120 were authors. I was the lone writer at my table–everybody else was from the business side of publishing. This, too, was a little disorienting, as I’d expected the mealtime chat to be rather more literary in tone, though I did get into a worthwhile conversation with a fellow from RR Donnelly Publishing (they’re the ones who actually manufacture books) about the prospects for e-books (he was skeptical). The food, incidentally, was quite good for a gathering of this sort–I wasn’t counting on rack of lamb.
The fiscal orientation of the audience may help to explain why Stephen King received two standing ovations as he was presented with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. As one of the Donnelly execs said to me during Standing Ovation No. 1, “That man has made a lot of money for a lot of people in this room.”
King’s speech was interesting. He was clearly moved by the honor–he choked up. He was funny and unpretentious when paying tribute to his wife and talking about the “vulnerability” to self-doubt of poor, struggling authors (such as himself when young). I suspect he was the first National Book Award laureate ever to say “Oh, shit!” in his acceptance speech (he was describing the way an honest author might portray a terrified character in extreme circumstances). And he was simultaneously a bit defensive and more than a little bit aggressive when he informed the crowd that they’d be making a mistake if they treated their decision to give him the prize as an act of “tokenism.” He said (repeatedly) that he didn’t write for money, that genre fiction deserved to be taken seriously, and that the judges of the National Book Awards had an obligation to read the best-selling books that are shaping American popular culture (I’m paraphrasing from memory, but that was the gist of his complaint). “Bridges can be built between the so-called popular fiction and literary fiction,” he declared, and to that end he supplied us with a long reading list of popular novelists whom he commended to our attention, among them Elmore Leonard and John Grisham. (He also mentioned Patrick O’Brian.)
The confrontational tone of King’s speech startled me–I’d never heard him talk before. Had it been adequately reported this morning, I think it would already be stirring up no small amount of controversy in the literary sector of the blogosphere. The reason why I approached him, by the way, was to ask if he’d made arrangements to publish it. He was polite (just) but brisk when he said that he thought somebody “already had dibs” on it. I hope it gets into print in some form or other, because it deserves to be talked about extensively.
King didn’t give the only attention-getting speech of the night. Carlos Eire spoke at unexpected length–eloquently and effectively–upon being given the nonfiction award for Waiting for Snow in Havana. He, too, was moved to the point of tears, but he wasn’t so disconcerted as to forget to point out to us that had he published Waiting for Snow in Havana in Cuba rather than America, he wouldn’t have been receiving an award in New York–he’d be locked up in one of Fidel Castro’s prisons. It was a surprising speech to hear at a gathering of New York literary types, who aren’t accustomed to being reminded that to be an honest writer in Cuba is to run the constant risk of being thrown into a jail not fit for animals (Eire’s words).
Polly Horvath, who received the prize for Young People’s Literature, gave a speech that lasted for about 15 seconds, and her brevity amazed and delighted everyone at my table. C.K. Williams, the poetry winner, read one of his poems in lieu of giving a speech, and it, too, was short. (I very much admired his nerve.)
Then Shirley Hazzard stole the show. Here’s how the New York Times described her acceptance speech:
She accepted the award before a crowd of 900 writers, editors and publishers, and urged American writers to remain aware of their immense power in the world and their consequent responsibility not to degrade the language they had been given.
“We’re drowning in explanations,” she said. “What we need is more questions.”
What the story didn’t say is that Hazzard was chiding Stephen King–politely, but by name, and she made no bones about it–for telling the NBA judges what they ought to be reading. My guess is that she is more accustomed to weighing her words than speaking off the top of her head, for her remarks, though brief, weren’t nearly as pointed as they seemed, and you could tell she was torn between her obligation to be tactful and her desire to tear a piece off King. Nevertheless, it was an unambiguously confrontational moment, and an electric one.
That’s about the size of it, though I do want to add a few last words about the experience of being an NBA judge. We considered 436 books (some of them very, very briefly, but they all got talked about at some point in the past few months). We never raised our voices, never argued with one another, never got angry. Our deliberations were civilized, collegial, and great fun. When we met yesterday afternoon to make our final selection, it was the first time all five of us had been in the same room at once–we mostly deliberated via e-mail and in conference calls–and the atmosphere, far from being tense, was positively festive.
Yes, it was hard work, and I really wish the NBA would break up the nonfiction award into at least two parts: it isn’t easy or fair to directly compare histories, biographies, and memoirs, as we had to do. But we did it, and though I’m sworn to secrecy as to the particulars of our discussions, I think I can speak for the whole panel when I say that we were collectively pleased and proud to give the prize to Waiting for Snow in Havana. I gather that not all literary prizes are awarded in so companionable an atmosphere, so I hate to disappoint you by not reporting any fist fights, but the sad truth is that I had a wonderful time being a judge for the National Book Awards.
UPDATE: More details of the ceremony are getting into print. For a reliable wire-service account (by way of Maud) with good quotes from the King and Hazzard speeches, go here. Looks like the Times punted on this one….