No Surprises at National Book Awards; Jonathan Franzen Talks About Being 48

The National Book Awards were held last night at the Marriot Marquee, bringing hordes of agents and editors–along with authors like Toni Morrison, Jonathan Franzen, and Joan Didion, who received a lifetime achievement award–to Times Square.

As widely predicted, Denis Johnson won the fiction prize for Tree of Smoke. Mr. Johnson’s wife accepted the award on his behalf because he is on assignment in Iraq.

In non-fiction, New York Times reporter Tim Weiner won for Legacy of Ashes, and in poetry, Robert Hass won for Time and Materials. Sherman Alexie won in the young adult category for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

"These are our Academy Awards," said Little, Brown publisher Michael Pietsch during the pre-ceremony cocktails. Mr. Pietsch was there to support his author Joshua Ferris, whose "Then We Came to the End" was nominated in the fiction category.

Mr. Ferris said he did not think he would win. "I’m young," he said. "There are thicker books."

Farrar, Straus & Giroux editor Lorin Stein, who edited three of the five books nominated for the fiction prize–including Tree of Smoke–said he was going to have problems no matter who ended up winning.

"In a sense no matter who wins, two of the writers I work with will lose," Mr. Stein said. "So I’m preparing to drink for the losers whether there are two or three of them. And in my heart they’ll always be winners."

During dinner, Jonathan Franzen, who won the NBA award for fiction in 2001 with The Corrections, was seated at a table near the stage. It was pointed out that, at 48, he was no longer eligible for the NBA’s "5 Under 35" prize, which honors young writers in the early stages of their careers.

Did Mr. Franzen wish he were younger?

"No,’ he said, "but I was thinking of writing a blurb for a pretty good book by Keith Gessen. I was thinking of writing the blurb, ‘it almost makes me wish I was young again.’ It’s so delicious the way he writes. I like it a lot."

Why did Mr. Gessen’s book make him want to be young again? Was is it because the main characters sleep with so many girls?

"You think I don’t sleep with girls? What are you saying?" Mr. Franzen said.

"No, I’m mostly happy to be 48," he continued. "I’m glad to have logged those years. If I die tomorrow I’ll have done a lot more things than someone who’s 23 has. And I think that’s a real advantage, especially considering the way the world is going."

The Media Mob asked what Mr. Franzen meant by that.

"It’s quite a hell, don’t you think?" he replied. "Don’t you know what I mean?"