Last night’s 70th National Book Awards in New York saw Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise (Henry Holt); Sarah M Broom’s The Yellow House (Grove); Arthur Sze’s Sight Lines (Copper Canyon); Laszlo Krasnahorkai’s Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, translated by Ottilie Mulzet (New Directions); and Martin W Sandler’s 1919: The Year That Changed America (Bloomsbury) as winners, respectively, in fiction, non-fiction, poetry, translated literature, and young people’s literature.
In a field of 25 finalists, none of whom had won a previous NBA, Broom, and to some extent Choi, had been favoured; Sandler’s win, on the other hand, evoked audible surprise, but after writing 60-plus books, his moment had come.
The first three winners announced – Sandler, the Hungarian Krasnahorkai, and Sze - were all men who’d passed their 65th birthdays, and were considerably older than most other finalists. Notable, too, was that Penguin Random House, with 10 finalists, collected no wins, and only one of the night’s winners was published by a big five house. Although presenters for the poetry and translation awards referenced the “vulgarity,” “cupidity,” and “xenophobia” emanating from the current administration in Washington, there were fewer overtly political statements than in the past few years.
As customary, two special awards were bestowed. The Literarian, for service to the American literary community, was given to Oren Teicher, outgoing American Booksellers Association chief executive. Bestselling novelist and independent store co-owner Ann Patchett, presenting it to Teicher, described him as “the man behind the curtain, who made us stronger, more practical, united, and expansive; fought for our rights and helped us reinvent ourselves to fit the time.” It was through his efforts, she noted, that five booksellers served on this year’s judging panels.
Teicher accepted the award on behalf of indies who “perform that special act of magic, putting the right book in the reader’s hands, making the world a far better place.”
Filmmaker/writer John Waters presented biographer/playwright/novelist Edmund White with the Distinguished Contribution to American Letters medal. Waters commended White’s “awe-inspiring resiliency”: a founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, he’s “an AIDS survivor who still loves sex”; had managed to “piss off” both Susan Sontag and Gore Vidal; and, as an American, “dared write a definitive biography of Jean Genet.” Reading is the “perfect fetish when Edmund is your literary top,” Waters concluded to knowing laughter.
White accepted the honour with wit, a history lesson, and hope, showing - despite the problems the LGBTQ community still confronts - how far we’ve come since he started his career pre-Stonewall. He had had to shelve “four gay novels,” he recalled, and only got the fifth published when his friend, poet-translator Richard Howard, “convinced Random House to take it after they’d already rejected it.” Editors “worried that colleagues would think them gay,” White explained.
His second published book was “damned” by the New York Review for being “too explicit;” it was only his fifth that was “favourably received.” Harpers & Queen once described him as “the most maligned man in America.” He concluded that to go a half-century from “most maligned” to “highly lauded” – that’s “astonishing.”