At the National Book Awards, good feelings for an embattled industry

William Alexander, Katherine Boo, Louise Erdrich, and Elmore Leonard. (Jed Lipinski)
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Jed Lipinski

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Earlier this week, an article in The New York Times described the National Book Awards as a “once-dowdy event.”

But as Faith Salie, the television and radio host, pointed out at the start of last night’s ceremony: “From where I stand, looking out at your sexy, sexy faces, you are post-dowdy.”

Post-dowdy was a good way to describe the scene at Cipriani Wall Street, the opulent and immense downtown club where around 670 people convened in cocktail attire for the 63rd incarnation of what is probably the country's biggest literary event.

Louise Erdrich’s novel The Round House, which tells the story of a murder on a Native American reservation, won the award for fiction, beating out acclaimed novels by Dave Eggers and Junot Diaz. Katherine Boo, whose book Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity won the award for nonfiction, overcoming serious competition from new books by Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro and the late journalist Anthony Shadid.

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But the real story of the event seemed to be the National Book Foundation’s triumphant makeover in the face of the book industry's continued decline. Inside Cipriani, authors posed for photographs on a red carpet. Molly Ringwald and Stephen King dined on sea scallops with frisée and tomato concasse. Rumors spread that the after-party, emceed by “international hip hop artist” Rabbi Darkside, had a waiting list—though if you were already a guest at the book awards, it turned out, you could just walk upstairs at the end of the night to keep things rolling.

The room teemed with literary celebrities. Unlike the Oscars, though, it wasn’t always easy to tell who the stars were. The ability to identify an author by sight is often based on five-, ten- or 20-year-old flap-copy photos. Those two pretty black-haired women talking animatedly with each other at a table near the front, who looked vaguely familiar? They revealed themselves on stage as Lorrie Moore and Louise Erdrich. Among the dozens of Upper West Side businessmen and real estate investors who’d paid $1,000 a plate to attend the awards—which doubles as a fund-raiser—Robert Caro was fundamentally indistinguishable.

Also unlike the Oscars, the National Book Awards were fun to watch, especially from the strange bleacher-like seating area where members of the press were stationed, which made the ceremony feel like a sport.

Martin Amis presented the award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to the novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard.

“The essence of Leonard is to be found in his use of the present participle,” Amis said. Where most writers write “she said” or “she says” to convey speech in dialogue, Amis noted, Leonard writes “she say.”

“We are in a kind of marijuana tense,” Amis said.

Leonard, after accepting the award, one-upped his old friend by repeating the “most stimulating” review he’d ever received, from the London-based magazine New Musical Express, who called him “the poet laureate of wild assholes with revolvers.”

“You hope in vain to see a quote like that on the back cover of your book,” he said.

In accepting her award, Boo drew laughs.

“I find myself like Mitt Romney the other night, without a speech,” she said. She then teed off with a word-perfect summation of her aspirations as a writer.

“If this prize means anything, it’s that small stories in so-called hidden places matter," she said. "One of the reasons they matter is that they implicate and complicate what we generally consider to be the larger story of this country and the world, which is the story of people who do have political and economic power.”

Erdrich put the crowd on its toes when she began her acceptance speech in Ojibwe, the Native American language in which she is fluent. She also gave a shout out to the Ojibwe people watching the live stream at home.

None of the winners spoke nearly long enough to have been played off by an orchestra, had the National Book Foundation sprung for one. The speeches were short and charmingly in keeping with the winners' styles of writing.

David Ferry, who at 88 won his first National Book Award for poetry with the collection Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations, characterized his brass trophy as a “preposterous pre-posthumous award,” a freestyle phraseology Jay-Z would admire.

The award for Young People’s Literature went to William Alexander for his fantasy novel Goblin Secrets. After some discussion of alternate universes and Ursula Le Guin, Alexander thanked the judges and other finalists “in every possible version of this world.”

After the awards, the four winners congregated on the red carpet for photos. The event’s publicists stood by, anxiously waiting for an opportunity to hand the authors their books.

Stepping off the carpet, Alexander was mobbed by admirers. One woman announced that she’d just bought her 11-year-old son a copy of Goblin Secrets.

“I love 11,” Alexander said. “The books you read at 11 permanently alter the shape of your brain.”

“I trust you!” the woman said.

Katherine Boo—who’d paused before the steps to the after-party, where Rabbi Darkside had begun his thunderous set—said her award had come as a shock.

“I didn’t write a speech because I felt the field was so strong,” she said, noting her extreme admiration for the other finalists, including Domingo Martinez, author of The Boy Kings of Texas. “I could tell you some sentences of Domingo’s. Talking about one of his relatives, he writes: ‘She prayed to bad saints.’ I mean, I really love that line.”