A Surprise Fiction Win and a Dazzling Le Guin at the National Book Awards 2014

On Wednesday, November 19, the National Book Foundation hosted the 2014 National Book Awards—the 65th annual awards—at the cavernous Cipriani’s Wall Street in lower Manhattan. nbaThe evening featured a surprise win in fiction for Phil Klay’s Redeployment (Penguin Pr.), a first book of stories by a former U.S. Marine who was stationed in Iraq for 13 months as a public affairs officer. Other fiction finalists looked as if they had an edge—for instance, Marilyn Robinson, up for Lila (Farrar), has been a fiction finalist twice and a nonfiction finalist once.

Still, Klay’s accomplished stories of life in battle and afterward has received considerable praise since its spring publication. Not only was it a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and a New York Times best seller but Klay was a 2014 National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Honoree. As a stunned Klay explained in his acceptance speech, being a marine means wondering what to say to a father whose marine son has meant so much to you or to a middle schooler disappointed that you haven’t killed anyone. “I don’t have the answer to those questions, but the book was the only way to start really thinking them through,” he concluded.

Other winners were less surprising if certainly satisfying. Jacqueline Woodson, who won the Young People’s Literature Award for Brown Girl Dreaming (Nancy Paulsen Bks: Penguin), has been an NBA finalist twice before and had an indisputably large cheering section at the event. She concluded her acceptance speech by noting, “It’s so important that we talk to our old people before they become our ancestors and get those stories.” Louise Glück, the 12th Poet Laureate of the United States and a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award winner, finally (and tearfully) won the Poetry Award for Faithful and Virtuous Night (Farrar) after having been an NBA finalist three previous times.

Evan Osnos, the Nonfiction Award winner for Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China (Farrar), currently a New Yorker staffer, was Beijing bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune, where he contributed to a series that won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. Like his fellow winners, he stressed how humbled he was in the presence of his fellow finalists and concluded his acceptance speech by thanking “the people in the pages of this book; they live in a place where it is dangerous to be honest, and I tried to do them justice.”

The evening opened with sharp reminders of the value of books beyond glittery awards—even if, as the risk-takingly (and sometimes inappropriately) funny  master of ceremonies Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) observed, “This is all pretty glam.” The Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community was given to Kyle Zimmer, founder of First Book, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that since 1992 has distributed 120 million books to impoverished children worldwide at little or no cost.

In accepting, Zimmer spoke eloquently of the importance of bringing together books and needy children, pointing out that 45 percent of children in this country are raised in homes that are poor or near poor and that 80 percent of such children read below proficiency level, creating a situation that is very much like a “permanent recession.” Putting on a hobbit persona, she said, “The giant spiders are heading our way, and we are all standing together, we are all holding our swords, and our whole story hangs by a thread.” Audience members were urged to find their “inner Bilbo Baggins.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, winner of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, threw down an even greater challenge to the audience. After proclaiming of the award “I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long”—that is, fantasy writers like herself—she went on to deliver a spirited attack on the market forces that dominate publishing today.

“I see sales departments given control over editorial,” said Le Guin. “I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write”

If Le Guin made the gathered publishing dignitaries uncomfortable with her admonishments (and there were uncomfortable stirrings, along with scattered applause), at least one person yelled out, “I love you.” And what’s not to love about an an author who proclaims, “But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. It’s name is freedom.”

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.