Accepting the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction for The Good Lord Bird (Riverhead), the darkly uproarious tale of a young slave who joins forces with John Brown, James McBride expressed gratitude that at a particularly difficult time in his life he could fall into the world of his protagonist, Little Onion Shackleford, and simply write. Before saying that, though, he affirmed that he was proud to be part of a community willing to speak truth to power, citing E.L. Doctorow’s condemning the Iraq war during a 2004 commencement speech even as he was booed.
Doctorow had in fact spoken earlier, having received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and McBride was amplifying his comments. At first treading rather gingerly through the digital minefield (“we can expect from the Internet human genius and human inadequacy, advantage and disadvantage”), leaving us wondering what he was going to contribute to the current conversation, Doctorow pounced at the end, citing a just-released PEN American Center and FDR Group survey of American writers showing that a majority acknowledge self-censoring their writing, research, or speech owing to fears about National Security Agency surveillance.
“So it’s started. Who will rule?” Doctorow concluded quietly, further pointing out that an audience “in the free-speech business” ought to be worried. The evening then went on its festive way, with dinner and the book awards to come, but even those who see only advantage in the Internet were given food for thought. What if McBride had hesitated to write about a good man, as he called John Brown, for fear of being seen to espouse terrorism? Would Mary Szybist tamp down the resonant parallels she made between the Annunciation and modern instances of alienation and awesome responsibility in the Poetry Award winner Incarnadine (Graywolf)? And what about George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (Farrar), the Nonfiction Award winner, which offers a head-on critique of American democracy today?
“Sometimes when I find myself in a dark place, I lose all taste for poetry,” said Szybist in her moving acceptance speech; what good is poetry if it can’t bring back lost loved ones, for instance. But as Szybist confirmed, there’s plenty poetry can do: “Poetry is where we can speak differently.” In his acceptance speech, Packer thanked the Americans whose stories he followed in The Unwinding for helping him illuminate “what’s gone wrong with America and some of what’s gone right.” Speaking up, speaking differently, speaking truth to power; a good reminder, despite the inevitably shiny feel of an evening Master of Ceremonies Mika Brzezinski described as “the Oscars without money,” of literature’s main aim and achievement.
From the vantage point of the National Book Awards ceremony, held Wednesday, November 20, at Lower Manhattan’s dark-lit, cavernous Cipriani, the book world looks good for now. The event had the biggest crowd ever, with over 700 people in attendance (and it felt crowded). The fiction panel received 407 nominees, up about 100 from last year (“the writing of fiction is a growth industry,” quipped panel chair Charles McGrath), and the nonfiction panel staggered under a word load of over 500 nominees.
Winner of the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, Maya Angelou sang, “When it looked like the sun wasn’t going to shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds” and called the audience her rainbows. And before announcing the winner of the Young People’s Literature Award, Cynthia Kadohata’s The Thing About Luck (Atheneum Books for Young Readers), panel chair E. Lockhart observed, “You are here because once upon a time you fell in love with a book. It was probably a children’s book.” There was considerable book loving at the awards ceremony, but as McBride sagely observed at evening’s close, “Once again, we have a lot of work ahead of us.”
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