National Book Awards proved much ado about not much at all
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Hyperbole blended with a little hypocrisy cut into the celebratory mood at the 61st annual National Book Award ceremony Nov. 17 in New York.
Although the result in poetry was good news for Pittsburgh when Terrance Hayes, Carnegie Mellon University professor and a University of Pittsburgh grad, claimed the poetry award for his fourth collection, "Lighthead," the general tone was flatter than hardcover book sales.
The speech by the night's headliner, Tom Wolfe, captured the underwhelming mood. The 79-year-old author was accepting his lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation for his "distinguished contribution to American letters," following in the footsteps of Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Stephen King.
Tina Brown, the Lazarus of the media business, delivered the hyperbole in her introduction when she branded Mr. Wolfe a modern-day H.L. Mencken for his journalism achievements without paying much attention to his three novels.
Her comparison was wide of the mark because Mencken's impact on national politics and his fascination with the English language eclipse Mr. Wolfe's eclectic popular culture interests, "The Right Stuff" excluded.
Only one of his novels -- his first, "Bonfire of the Vanities -- was an artistic and literary success. From there, it has been downhill through the bloated "A Man in Full" to the misconceived "I Am Charlotte Simmons."
Mr. Wolfe rose unsteadily to the podium and promised to deliver his "life in six minutes." It was a pallid performance compared to the serious discussions of American literature by Mr. Mailer and Mr. Roth. Instead, he contented himself telling anecdotes from his New York newspaper days that led to his early books.
"You can't make this stuff up," Mr. Wolfe said, although such journalists as John Hersey and others suggest that occasionally he did.
He said he's at work on a fourth novel, titled "Back to Blood," for his new publisher, Little, Brown, where he went after the disappointing sales of "Charlotte Simmons" stuck his longtime house, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, with thousands of unsold books.
After a pause for dinner, the awards show resumed. The first two honors -- children's literature and poetry -- were well received, but when "Lord of Misrule" won the best fiction award, the crowd reaction was cool.
Jaimy Gordon, 66, toiled in fiction-land obscurity for many years, publishing three novels with small publishers while paying the rent as a writing professor at Western Michigan University. She worked at several racetracks in the 1960s and used her experience as the basis for her winning book.
Her better-known competition -- Peter Carey, Nicole Krauss and Lionel Shriver -- presented the fiction judges with such a problematic choice of novels that "Lord of Misrule" might have seemed the best compromise.
Besides, the history of the fiction winners is such a jumble of well-knowns and unknowns that Ms. Gordon's selection this year is just another usual surprise among such previous unknowns as Alice McDermott, Lilly Tuck, Charles Johnson, John Casey, Colum McCann and Ellen Gilchrist as well as offbeat choices William Vollman and Peter Matthiessen.
Mr. Matthiessen's 2008 winner, "Shadow Country," was an edited version of his Florida trilogy published earlier.
In nonfiction, the five judges went the popular route, naming rocker poet Patti Smith's memoir, "Just Kids," the best, bypassing more serious subjects such as North Korea, the changing images of war and Afghanistan.
Ultimately, it's the judges who decide the outcome of America's top literary awards. Some are well known -- Cornelius Eady and Linda Gregerson in poetry, Sallie Tisdale and Blake Bailey in nonfiction and Andrei Codrescu and Carolyn See in fiction.
It's a tough job, as William Gass, the great novelist and sometime judge tells us:
"The giving of prizes is a notoriously chancy business. Look at the mistakes the Nobel committee has made. Or shall we amuse ourselves by listing the important works the National Book Awards missed. ... Any award-giving outfit is doomed by its cumbersome committee structure to make mistakes, to pass the masters by in silence and applaud the apprentices, the mimics, the hacks or to honor one of those agile surfers who rides every fresh wave.
"To find yourself associated with an award given to mediocrity on the basis of sex, race or subject, instead of to literary excellence on the basis of that quality, is of course, intolerable, and the injustice of having to keep your fist in your mouth when it ought to be in someone else's is understandably galling; yet when you agree to serve, you are risking your pride and the likely defeat of your intentions."
Previous National Book Award gatherings were held at a Times Square hotel with big-name hosts such as Steve Martin were a dim memory in the cacophonous Cipriani banquet hall on Wall Street with second-tier comedian Andy Borowitz.
He stepped off on the wrong foot from the get-go, comparing the American publishing industry to that crippled cruise liner wallowing off the Mexican coast. Did anybody tell him his audience was the publishing industry gathered to celebrate itself? It was not amused, and Mr. Borowitz was forced to apologize later.
The first celebrity to kick off the awards portion was Elmo, on hand to honor Joan Ganz Cooney with the "literarian award" marking her role in the "Sesame Street" TV program.
Ms. Cooney said modestly that her goal was "to save civilization."
Her next goal might be to save the book award ceremony from Andy Borowitz.
First Published November 26, 2010 12:00 am