At the National Book Awards in New York last night (15th November), there were the winners: the favourite, Sing, Unburied, Sing (Scribner), from Jessmyn Ward (who also won in 2011), for fiction; journalist Masha Gessen’s surprise non fiction victor The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (Riverhead); Robin Benway’s Far from the Tree (HarperCollins), for young people’s literature; and Frank Bidart’s Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016 (FSG), for a lifetime in poetry.
Then there were the speeches.
From award presenter and former president Bill Clinton, to actress Cynthia Nixon, to Distinguished Contribution to American Letters medalist Annie Proulx and others, the necessity for citizen activism, and its intersection with the world of books, was a theme permeating the evening. Donald Trump, the US president who seems proud of not opening any book, wasn’t mentioned directly in any speech, but then, that wasn’t necessary: he was the anti-matter in the room.
“You don’t have to be elected to office to do the public good. Private citizens, at this time of great division, must,” advised Clinton, as he presented Scholastic chairman Dick Robinson the NBA’s Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.
Robinson thanked “the 10,000 people of Scholastic around the world, each of whom would tell you that their job is to help children to read.” A would-be writer who spent two years as a high school teacher before joining the company his father founded in 1920, Robinson added: “providing equal education is the only solution to maintaining a democratic society…We have a huge stake in establishing a level playing field…The battle cry is reading for all!”
Tony-and-Emmy-Award-winning actress Nixon described books as “among the most powerful weapons in what has felt like a hostile world this past year…They offer a broadened perspective at a time when we all need that so desperately.”
Proulx, winner of NBA, Pulitzer, and many other prizes, put it bluntly: “we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds,” but in a “Kafkaesque time” of “social media manipulation of a credulous population…cascading over us in a garbage-laden tsunami of raw data.” The destruction of the natural world “is the worst.” Yet, “everyone can get involved in citizen science,” and “the oldest credited longings persist,” for “truth, justice, honor,” and the like. “We keep on trying, there’s nothing else to do.”
She herself provided an example of what can be accomplished by making the effort even at an unlikely age: although Proulx’s award was for “lifetime achievement,” she noted mischievously, “I didn’t start writing until I was 58. So if you’ve been thinking about it and putting it off….”
Gessen, genuinely surprised, allowed how she “never thought a Russia book could be longlisted or shortlisted, but things have changed.”
And Ward, who read a speech from her phone, not quite trusting herself to know what to say spontaneously, spoke of when she had been rejected and told, “people will not read your work because it’s not universal, it’s about poor black southerners.”
“You answered that [challenge]: you saw yourself, your grief, love, losses, joy, hope,” she said triumphantly.
Despite a distracted population and the uneasy sales numbers that reflect it, the evening did its work, providing a sense of hope in community. The awards dinner raises funds for the work of the National Book Foundation, and as Dick Robinson remarked, the room appeared to be “twice as full as it used to be.”