James McBride won the National Book Award on Wednesday night for The Good Lord Bird, an irreverent, sharp-eyed novel narrated by an escaped slave. It was published by Riverhead Books, part of Penguin Random House. Taking the stage with a stunned expression, Mr. McBride, who was considered an underdog in speculation before the awards, said he had not bothered to write a speech.
Mr. McBride wrote the book amid personal tragedies, he said, naming the deaths of his mother and his niece, and the unraveling of his marriage. “It was always nice to have somebody whose world I could just fall into and follow him around,” he said.
The awards, in their 64th year, were presented at a black-tie dinner at Cipriani Wall Street. More than 700 guests attended, an increase over recent years, the organizers said. To be eligible for a 2013 National Book Award, authors had to be American citizens and to have written books that were published in the United States between Dec. 1, 2012, and Nov. 30, 2013.
In keeping with tradition, the judges met on the day of the ceremony, at a decadent lunch at the restaurant of their choosing, to select the winners. The winners received $10,000 and a bronze statue. Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC, the host of the ceremony, kept publishing jokes to a minimum, a departure from the usual maudlin digs about e-books and the supposed end of print. “Books still make the world interesting and exciting and wonderful,” Ms. Brzezinski said, opening her remarks. “Where would our world be without them?”
While the National Book Awards tend to be criticized for their selections of little-known or obscure books, few were complaining about the finalists this year. Rachel Kushner, Jhumpa Lahiri and George Saunders, nominees in fiction, were critical darlings. Three of the five nonfiction finalists hardly suffer from low profiles: They are staff writers for The New Yorker. Thomas Pynchon, nominated for Bleeding Edge, declined to attend the ceremony, keeping with his strict avoidance of opulent public events over the last half-century.
The poetry award went to Mary Szybist for Incarnadine, published by Graywolf Press. The award for young people’s literature went to Cynthia Kadohata for The Thing About Luck, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, a division of Simon & Schuster.
Maya Angelou received the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, a prize that was presented by Toni Morrison. Introducing Ms. Angelou, Ms. Morrison called her “a friend and an artist and a legend.” “Her creative impulse struck like bolts of lightning,” Ms. Morrison said. “Her example is not one of survival. It truly is one of triumph. Dr. Maya Angelou, you improve our world by drawing from us, forcing from us our better selves.”
Ms. Angelou, who received two rapturous standing ovations, accepted the award from “all you literary folks” with a broad smile, even briefly breaking into song. “You are rainbows in my clouds,” she said. “You have decided to honor me, and I’m grateful to you.” She cited her longtime editor, Robert Loomis, who worked with her for more than four decades. “Over 40 years — imagine it — I have tried to tell the truth as I understand it in prose,” she said. “Easy reading is damn hard writing. But you know all that.”
Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of The Nation magazine, introduced E. L. Doctorow, the recipient of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Mr. Navasky recalled that Mr. Doctorow once said: “There is no room for a reader in your mind. You don’t think of anything but the language you’re in.” “Edgar, I have news for you,” Mr. Navasky said. “You may not have us in mind, but you are in a roomful of your grateful readers.”
Mr. Doctorow took the stage and cooled the mood down with a somber speech on technology, government surveillance and the Internet. (Somewhat uncomfortably, Amazon.com and Google were sponsors of the event.) “Text is now a verb,” Mr. Doctorow said. “More radically, a search engine is not an engine. A platform is not a platform. A bookmark is not a bookmark because an e-book is not a book.” “Reading a book is the essence of interactivity,” he added, “bringing sentences to life in the mind.”
article by Julie Bosman via nytimes.com