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She said: The National Book Awards

Today has to rank as one of the busiest, and perhaps one of the most surreal, days in recent memories. First there was lunch @ Michael’s (which Ron has already spoken about) and then there was the National Book Awards held just a few hours later. A disgustingly humid day gave way for cooler and rainier weather, which made walking to the Marriott Marquis all that much more fun. Then there was the hotel navigation — you mean, I have to go up seven flights of escalators? And why can’t I find the coat check and press room? And come to think of it, where’s the bar?

But all that got sorted in due course and fate decreed that the first people I should run into were Ron and Carol Fitzgerald before making way to the pre-event cocktail party. Where it soon became apparent that this, my friends, is quite a bit different from what I’m used to. And by that I mean the Edgar Awards, where I know at least half the people in attendance, if not more. By the end of the night, the balance had shifted, but I suppose it’s to be expected for a NBA newbie.

I’ll leave most of the scuttlebutt and party-hopping to Ron, which means I get the main event stuff. Although AP’s Hillel Italie called William Vollmann’s win for fiction “a minor surprise” the crowd’s reaction (especially in the press balcony box) indicated otherwise. Vollmann, too, was so surprised he didn’t even prepare a speech, and took a while to overcome the deer-in-headlights look. Once he did, he gave an eloquent speech about the impetus for EUROPE CENTRAL and no doubt has made the folks at Viking very, very happy. How this will translate into sales is another story, but I’d be willing to bet there’ll be an appreciable spike.

Vollmann’s win, surprise that it was, was fitting in light of the evening’s opening speeches. First there was Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who is in astonishing shape for a man in his mid-80s) who wondered about the future of the novel and then read out a rather lengthy poem originally written post-9/11 which seemed to lament this fact. Fair enough: he is the owner of City Lights and a noted poet.

Then there was Norman Mailer, inexplicably introduced by Toni Morrison. Inexplicably because she pretty much admitted she didn’t care too much for his work (and the “obtuseness about women” comment is in print, but I’ll also add that it got a fair laugh from Mr. Mailer himself — hard to miss that trademark barking sound…) but expressed some sort of admiration nonetheless. Which brings us to the grand old man. How shall I sum this up? He railed about the death of the serious novel, and then oh yeah, good luck to the fiction nominees! Which isn’t to say that he didn’t have a good point that serious fiction doesn’t have the same respect and cachet in an age of technological advances and endless THE DA VINCI CODE flogging, but there did seem to be that unmistakable whiff of “good old daze” sentiment wafting through the ballroom.

Otherwise, the event went fairly smoothly, and the biggest winner was obviously Knopf, taking the Young People’s Prize (Jeanne Birdsall’s THE PENDERWICKS) and the Non-Fiction Prize (for Joan Didion’s THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING.) Didion put to mind a frail bird, and it did seem as if she was slightly stunned to be walking up to the stage to accept the award. Considering the subject matter of her book, this was hardly a surprise, but to glimpse even a small portion of what must be laced throughout the book was rather amazing.

Rounding things up was W.S. Merwin’s win for Poetry. He couldn’t be in attendance because he’d just returned to his Hawaii home earlier this week after a long trip, bringing an infection back with him. The doctors ordered him to stay behind, but Merwin entrusted his stepson John (who lives in Brooklyn) with an acceptance speech “just in case.”

And keeping with my backwards approach to reporting, there is Garrison Keilor, doing an uncanny impression of Stephen King (at least with his appearance and especially his hair.) While amiable enough, I couldn’t help joking to Ron and Carol during the dinner break that it would have been cool to bring in someone just a bit livelier to host the proceedings: Chris Rock, perhaps, or maybe Sarah Silverman. Or to bring back the literary theme, JT Leroy…

Final bulletpoints:

-cancelling the afterparty as a costcutting measure is, without a doubt, ridiculously lame.

-the men of the Book Standard are an extremely entertaining bunch.

-the press food was much better than I expected, but I was really hankering after the remains of dessert left forlornly on each main table.

-it was great to meet and chat with Miriam Berkley, Aileen Jacobson, Kyle Smith, Beth Ann Patrick, and several others whose names escape me for the moment. And there were others I would have liked to meet but didn’t have the chance to. Next time, perhaps?

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