As in previous years, the move towards added visibility and greater recognition resulted in a mixture of expected and surprise National Book Award winners Wednesday night. Phil Klay won the fiction prize for his debut short story collection REDEPLOYMENT, something of a surprise (most especially for the author, who only prepared a speech upon his wife’s urging.) “I spent 13 months in Iraq working with an exceptional group of Marines… and I came back not knowing what to think,” Klay said. “For me, writing this book…I can’t think of a more important conversation to be having. War is too strange to be processed alone.” For the second straight year, a New Yorker staff writer took the nonfiction prize, as Evan Osnos won for THE AGE OF AMBITION. He called out his parents, most notably Peter, saying “if you go into the writing business and your name is Osnos, it must be like what George W. Bush feels.”
A spokesperson for Penguin Press said they will reprint additional copies of REDEPLOYMENT but declined to discuss exact figures (“we do not share print figures as a rule”). The paperback publication date of February 24, 2015 remains unchanged. FSG will have firm reprint plans later today on THE AGE OF AMBITION.
Daniel Handler opened the National Book Awards with a series of zingers on subjects ranging from Jeff Bezos and Karl Ove Knausgaard to Twitter, but ran into controversy and negative social media reaction Thursday over racial insensitivity for some of his remarks during the ceremonies. Early on, in introducing author Sharon Draper to present the Young People’s Literature prize, he noted her as a winner of “the Coretta Scott King Award, a prize I hope some day to receive myself. That’s a children’s publishing joke.” (Those awards are given by the ALA to outstanding African American authors and illustrators.) But the comments that sparked the strongest reaction came immediately after Jacqueline Woodson accepted the Young People’s Literature award for her memoir BROWN GIRL DREAMING.
Handler, who is friends with Woodson, said that he told her “if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned this summer, which is that Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink in your mind. And I said, ‘You have to put that in a book.’ And she said, ‘You put it in a book.’ And I said, ‘I’m only writing a book about a black girl who’s allergic to watermelon if I get a blurb from you, Cornell West, Toni Morrison, and Barack Obama saying ‘This guy’s OK. This guy’s fine.'” Neither Handler nor the National Book Foundation returned our request for comment.
Among the authors commenting Twitter this morning, however, was Roxane Gay, who posted: “Daniel Handler’s racist ‘humor’ at the NBAs last night is not okay and I am shocked that so few people are talking about it.” She added later, “I’m sure he’s a good guy. But we can still say, ‘This was a mistake, try and be better.'” (Separately, today Gay was named as one of three authors serving on an advisory board for subscription service Oyster.)
Earlier in the evening, Mary Pope Osborne presented the Literarian Award to FirstBook president and ceo Kyle Zimmer. “This award is being handed to me, but everyone knows that FirstBook is a team sport,” Zimmer said. “Books are the most powerful force in the universe, and history supports this. She concluded: “Tonight I invite you to decide what the next chapter will look like. We know what the crucial key is to this entire crisis. It’s books.”
Neil Gaiman presented Ursula K. LeGuin with the medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and she proceeded to deliver a fiery, no-words-minced speech, calling out “corporate fatwas” and “profiteers who threatened publishers,” adding: “We live in capitalism. That seems inevitable. So did the divine right of kings.” She stressed the importance of “writers who know difference between a market commodity and the practice of art” and urged, in the future, for more “writers who see how we live now and who can see through the fear-stricken obsession with technology. We need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries of a larger reality.” LeGuin closed her speech: “The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.”
The full roster of award winners:
Phil Klay, Redeployment (The Penguin Press)
Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Young People’s Literature
Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (Nancy Paulsen Books)
Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)