Politics and art made uneasy bedfellows at New York City’s Marriott Marquis on the evening of Nov. 17, as roughly 1,000 publishers and writers gathered to eat steak, gossip, and award the country’s second-oldest literary prize. Thanks to the selection of the 9/11 report as a finalist—and the appearance of former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean to accept the award should it win—the normally staid National Book Awards event was awash with security detail, whose suits did nothing to disguise deltoids and biceps designed to take a bullet. Host Garrison Keillor didn’t realize it, but he spoke to the embattled, watched feeling all these ear-wires and American flag lapel buttons gave attendees when he held up a bronze statuette and joked: “This weighs about as much as a bowling ball. A lot of these prizes are little Lucite things, but if you hit somebody with one of these things they’ll go down and stay down.”
In spite of every attempt by the fiction judges to inspire violence, the event went off without a melÃ©e, and Lily Tuck was crowned queen of her fellow “unknowns” for her novel The News from Paraguay. After all the harangues in the press, it was oddly humbling to have fiction panel chairman Rick Moody stand up in a suit of banker stripe—sans glasses and much of his hair—and make an argument that the books on the NBA’s controversial list of finalists were indeed exemplars of language and imagination, not beneficiaries of a Plot Against Philip Roth. And even if you could quibble with that—were these books really better than Roth’s masterpiece?—the festivities’ halfhearted stab at glamour made the personal impact of prizes manifest. Here were five writers, gussied up far beyond their usual fare, all too aware that this might be their only moment in the public eye.
Still, how do you insist on the primacy of art to be art alone when there’s also a rightward cultural drift to resist? This question flickered through the crowd as, one-by-one, speakers alternated between hymns to the pleasures of reading and swipes at the Patriot Act. Judy Blume took the stage in a plunging velour gown and dangly earrings to accept a lifetime achievement award. She described how she had become a Dr. Ruth for teens in an age when a growing part of the country appears to think that any sex at all is very, very bad. “Dear Judy,” one reader apparently once wrote to the best-selling author, “please send me the facts of life in number order.”
Would that she could, but even the poets—normally famed for their wisdom and longsightedness—came up with a blank over whether or not books could become the place people turned to for answers again. Speaking in the V.I.P reception beforehand, poetry winner Jean Valentine (Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003) suggested more public readings might help, but then said, “No, that’s what we do anyway.” Accepting the award for nonfiction, Kevin Boyle (Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age) was grimmer yet about the impact literature has had. “The system of racial injustice I write about is still largely in place, in almost all of urban America. So [my book] confirms part of what Martin Luther King, Jr. once said—the arc of the moral universe is very long, but it doesn’t always bend toward justice.”
Perhaps New York Times critic Caryn James was on to something when she complained maybe the influence of television had lead to a trimming down of ambition in this year’s fiction finalists. Put these winners in a house on the coast of Malibu; give them some stunts and a pile of cash to play for, and turn them into a reality TV cast. Then they’d have power.