November 22, 2013

McBride, Packer win big at the 2013 National Book Awards


The National Book Awards were given out on Sunday in a very long ceremony.

On Wednesday evening, the winners of the 2013 National Book Award were announced at a ceremony at Cipriani in Manhattan. The winners (drumroll, please) were:

Maya Angelou and E.L. Doctorow were also honored at the ceremony. Angelou was awarded the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, in what many felt was the highlight of the evening. Toni Morrison honored Angelou, saying, “Her creative impulse struck like bolts of lightning. Her example is not one of survival. It truly is one of triumph. Dr. Maya Angelou, you improve our world by drawing from us, forcing from us our better selves.” Speaking from a wheelchair, Angelou herself gave a moving speech. “I have been trying to tell the truth as far as I understand it, and you have honored me this evening, and I’m so grateful,” she remarked.

If Angelou and Morrison were the highlight of the evening, Doctorow, who was given the  Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, was surely the lowlight. While Doctorow deserves some credit for giving a speech about technology and government surveillance at an event that, as Julie Bosman points out, was sponsored by Google and Amazon, the speech he gave was rambling and crotchety and left much to be desired. In a bit reminiscent of George Carlin‘s worst work, Doctorow riffed, “Text is now a verb. More radically, a search engine is not an engine. A platform is not a platform. A bookmark is not a bookmark because an e-book is not a book.” Still, it wasn’t all Chicken Little proselytizing. Doctorow also half-heartedly suggested things might not be so bad, after all: “Can we expect from the Internet, infinite manifestations of human genius and human inadequacy? I think so…. Reading a book is the essence of interactivity, bringing sentences to life in the mind.” Still, those under 40 are advised to stay off Doctorow’s lawn for the time being.

Cynthia Kadohata won the Young People’s Literature prize for The Thing About Luck but, according to Publishers Weekly, did not prepare a speech in accordance with an “extreme superstition.” She did, however, make time to thank her agent and editor. Earlier this year, School Library Journal praised The Thing About Luck for its “tremendous amount of heart,” though it also warned that “extensive information about grain harvesting require some amount of patience from readers.”

A visibly moved Mary Sybist won the National Book Award for Poetry for Incarnadine. Szibist thanked “the mother that made me,” and had one of the evening’s best lines: “There’s plenty that poetry cannot do, but the miracle of course, is how much it can do, is how much it does do.” Poetry, she added, “is the place where speaking differently is the most prevalent.” Earlier this year Slate‘s Jonathan Farmer wrote that Sybist “persistently tightens the association between revelation and destruction, presenting the other side of an unspoken loss that seems to lurk in the decade Incarnadine emerges from: a loss of faith, urgency, purpose, love, inspiration.”

George Packer won the National Book Award for nonfiction for The Unwinding, a book which explores the decline of the American middle-class and the fraying of American institutions. The Unwinding is, above all else, the story of individuals—it’s made up of an array of profiles of Americans from diverse backgrounds—and Packer thanked his subjects in his speech: “Americans who gave me the great gift of trusting me with their stories and allowing me into their lives so I could try to illuminate some of what’s gone wrong with America in the last generation and in their own lives, some of what’s gone right.” Dwight Garner called The Unwinding “something close to a nonfiction masterpiece.” Chris Lehmann, however, felt differently, writing that “Packer’s book hints at the deeper distempers lurking beneath its tale of corrosive economic decline and displacement, but it can never bring itself to own up to… fundamental moral invocation.

Finally, James McBride won the National Book Award for fiction for The Good Lord Bird, a novel narrated by an escaped slave who travels with John Brown and his doomed group of abolitionist raiders. While The Good Lord Bird was widely acclaimed upon its release (and even landed, as Laura Miller noted yesterday, on the cover of the New York Times Book Review), McBride’s victory was seen as something of a surprise. Most, it seemed believed the award would go to one of the other four nominees: the reclusive heavyweight Thomas Pynchon (who did not attend, obviously), the bestselling and brilliant Jhumpa Lahiri, the newly-anointed “21st century Kurt Vonnegut” George Saunders, or the enormously talented upstart Rachel Kushner. McBride himself was seemingly shocked to take the stage and acknowledged that he had not bothered to write a speech. Nevertheless, he gave a powerful speech in which he reflected on the numerous personal trials he underwent whilst writing The Good Lord Bird. He also humbly acknowledged his fellow nominees, saying “I wouldn’t have felt bad, they are fine writers, but it sure is nice to get it.”

The ceremony was hosted by Morning Joe‘s Mika Brzezinski, for reasons no one quite understands.


Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.