“The only thing I have ever wanted to do in my life is have a good time writing stories. This award says I am still at it.” That’s how Elmore Leonard gracefully summed up his acceptance of the 2012 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (otherwise called the lifetime achievement award), presented by the National Book Foundation at the 63rd National Book Awards on Wednesday, November 14, in New York.
Whether this year’s award winners had a good time writing their stories, some of which were heartbreaking, the authors, agents, editors, and critics in the audience had a good time hearing about it. This was a jazzed-up crowd from the moment Fresh Air’s Terry Gross stepped forth to present Arthur O Sulzberger Jr., chair of the New York Times, with the 2012 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.
Sulzberger accepted on behalf of the entire New York Times team, declaring that authors and reporters share a commitment to storytelling and that he is “invested in growing book coverage at the Times,” with an eye to adapting as reading habits evolve. Let’s hold him to it.
The rest of the evening was a story about stories. In accepting the 2012 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for Goblin Secrets (Margaret K. McElderry Bks: S. & S. Children’s Publishing), William Alexander first expressed his astonished delight by exclaiming, “Okay, we now have proof that alternate universes exist,” then cited Ursula Le Guin’s comment, “The literature of imagination…offers a world large enough to contain alternatives and therefore offers hope.”
In awarding the 2012 National Book Award for Poetry to David Ferry for Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations (University of Chicago Press), poetry chair Laura Kasischke commented of the various submissions that “to read these poems was to be spoken to” but that for the judges the “five radioactive [finalists] glowed.” Ferry’s well-grounded craft—he’s been at this for decades and joked in his acceptance speech that this was a pre-posthumous award—seems to have glowed most of all.
Katherine Boo, whose Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Random) took the 2012 National Book Award for Nonfiction, summed up the spirit of the evening by thanking “all the people who allowed their stories to be told.” That sentiment was amplified by Louise Erdrich when she accepted the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction for The Round House (Harper: HarperCollins). Her book embodies the grace and endurance of Native American women while highlighting continuing injustice on the reservation, and she was grateful that the award would give it a wider audience.