With tears of joy and lots of liquor, New York publishing gathered at Cipriani Wall Street last night for the National Book Awards. This year’s host was actor John Lithgow, who recently published a memoir (Drama: An Actor’s Education) and performed his role with just the right amount of self-deprecation.
It was not as bad as 1999, when attendees of the PEN American Gala had to cross a picket line to get into Cipriani Midtown, but there were a few jokes about the celebration’s short distance from Zuccotti Park.
“My wife said we were going to Citarella for dinner,” joked a sheepish Michael Moore to The Observer. “Wait, we’re going by the stock exchange! Holy shit!” He said he would be returning to the neighborhood tomorrow for events surrounding the two-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.
“I thought I would point out, since nobody else has, that we are Occupying Wall Street,” said the poet Ann Lauterbach in her introduction to the poet John Ashbery, who was accepting a medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Attendees clapped for the unlikely vision of John Lithgow placing a medal around John Ashbery’s neck.
Mr. Ashbery’s acceptance speech was an uplifting survey of his literary career, starting with his discovery of Modernism as a young man and his thoughts on those who have found him a difficult poet.
“As long as I’ve been publishing poetry it has been seen as difficult and private though I never meant for it to be,” he said. “I wanted the difficulty to reflect the difficulty of reading, any kind of reading, which is both a pleasant and painful experience since we are temporarily giving ourselves to something which may change us.”
“To have been included in the same press release as John Ashbery just seems wrong,” said Mitchell Kaplan, the owner of Miami bookstore Books & Books, upon acceptance of his award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.
After attendees ate plates of rack of lamb and mingled, the exciting part of the awards began. First up was the award for Young People’s Literature, a slight sore spot for the National Book Foundation. When finalists were named for the award last month, Lauren Myracle’s Shine was announced instead of the book judges had actually chosen, Franny Billingsley’s Chime. Ms. Myracle had to give up her reward, apologies were made, and the whole embarrassing affair was quickly glossed over.
“It was a bad year for muffled phone conversations with disastrous consequences,” said National Book Award Judge Marc Aronson, referring to the whole sordid episode as an “oral malfunction.” The award went to Thanhha Lai for her book Inside Out & Back Again.
Mr. Ashbery’s speech set the bar high, but the winner of the National Book Award for Poetry, Nikky Finney, soon matched it. Ms. Finney won for her collection Head Off & Split. Through tears she recalled in her acceptance the history of slaves who were punished for reading and writing.
“If my name is ever called out, I promised my girl poet self, so too would I call out theirs,” she read, exiting the stage to a standing ovation.
“That was the best acceptance speech I’ve ever heard from anyone in my entire life,” said Mr. Lithgow.
Stephen Greenblatt won the award for non-fiction for his book The Swerve: How We Became Modern. Also choking up, he thanked the poet Lucretius, who lived 2000 years ago, Poggio Bracciolini, a fourteenth-century Italian scholar, and W.W. Norton, for its willingness to publish a book about the “discovery of an ancient poem by a Renaissance humanist.”
The final award, for fiction, went to Jesmyn Ward, for her novel Salvage the Bones. She cried too, recalling in an emotional speech how she started to write in her 20s following the death of her brother. After the ceremony ended we found Ms. Ward and asked her if she had been optimistic about her prospects before the ceremony.
“I tried not to have any expectations,” she said. “I was planning to be overjoyed for whoever won. It was a total shock.”
But her editor, Bloomsbury USA’s Kathy Belden, had secret hopes.
“I guess publishing books that don’t have huge markets for 25 years I don’t always go in with high expectations and I go in with a love for the books,” said Ms. Belden. “And yet this time when she was nominated I thought she could win.”
After the ceremony, Cipriani opened its doors to the riff-raff—junior editors, young agents, reporters, literary party stalwart Jon-Jon Goulian—who made their way to a second floor balcony for pigs-in-a-blanket, sliders, dancing and more cocktails. Amazon Publishing head Larry Kirshbaum, whose company had a table at the awards for the first time this year, was seen shaking it on the dance floor. Later we encountered him at the coat check with a copy of non-fiction finalist Mary Gabriel’s Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution under his arm.
As The Observer left the ceremony, we were stopped by a group on the steps in formalwear smoking cigars, including fiction finalist Téa Obreht and Random House editor Noah Eaker. The stogies might have been for consolation rather than celebration, but they still wanted their photo taken.