In a surprise ending to the 64th National Book Awards in New York last night, James McBride, author of The Good Lord Bird (Riverhead/Penguin) won the fiction prize over odds-on favourite George Saunders’ story collection The Tenth of December (Random House).
McBride, son of an African-American father and Jewish-American mother, is best known for his 1996 memoir The Color of Water, regarded as a modern classic in the US.
“I really didn’t think I’d win,” he said, explaining that he had no prepared speech. But talented jazz musician that he is, McBride improvised.
In an evening that had already bestowed lifetime honors on E L Doctorow and Maya Angelou (introduced by Toni Morrison), McBride admitted to being “proud to be a part of that number of Doctorow, Morrison and Angelou, when the saints go marching in!”
The other fiction finalists were Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland (Knopf); Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge (Penguin Press); and Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers (Scribner).
Although finalists in both fiction and non- fiction were regarded as strong this year, in non-fiction, two front-runners, both staff writers for the New Yorker, were neck and neck: George Packer for The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (FSG) and Lawrence Wright for Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief (Knopf). Packer won.
Other non-fiction finalists were Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (HMH); Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (Knopf); Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 (Norton).
The poetry prize went to Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine (Graywolf), and the young people’s literature award to Cynthia Kadohata’s The Thing About Luck (Atheneum/S&S).
Morrison’s speech introducing Angelou, a close friend made late in life, greatly moved the 700-plus guests. Angelou, awarded the Literarian prize for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, “gave license to a host of other African-American writers, opened the door to our interior mind,” Morrison emphasised. She is “an example of triumph, forcing from us our own better selves.”
Now in a wheelchair, Angelou in her acceptance speech went back to Genesis, breaking into song at one point, riffing on the idea of “a rainbow in the clouds.” While emphasizing that “I’ve tried to tell the truth in prose,” and that “easy reading is damn hard writing,” she gave a shout-out to her Random House editor of over forty years, the now-retired Bob Loomis.
Contrasting with the joy bubbling up from Angelou, Doctorow—accepting the medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters—congratulated with a wry irony “the shortlisted content providers here,” and sounded a warning about the “loomingly present” internet. Doctorow came of age during the McCarthy era and made his interpretation of the writer’s societal role as truth-teller clear.
Thus, the internet is “a companion planet in orbit with our own, that can be mined to create wealth, spy on us, make war…” he mused.
Like Angelou, Doctorow returned to Genesis. “The prophetic story for this is the eviction story: the consequences of eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. It’s heaven and hell.”
He doesn’t want us to lose heart, however: “Writing thrives on adversity.” Referring to the recent PEN America survey revealing a significant amount of self-censorship among writers, Doctorow saw it as “a slowly-gathering China-like darkness, the first steps down the stairs to the internet world’s hell. Who will run the internet – the government data miners and the corporations in league with them, or everyone else? We’ll have to join that struggle.
"Everyone in this room is in the free speech business.”