2011 National Book Awards Madness!

1. Host John Lithgow gets the evening off to a great start with some self-deprecating humor. 2. If Cipriani is your regular lunch spot, or your go-to place for dinner, or if you would ever go here even once without being at the National Book Awards, you are not part of the 99 percent.

It was impossible not to notice the proximity of tonight’s National Book Awards (Cipriani, at 55 Wall Street) to the site of Occupy Wall Street. And being in such a warm, opulent space, enjoying a celebratory evening, it was hard not to feel sort of bad as the protesters huddled outside in the rain.

Ann Lauterbach, presenting to John Ashbery the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, gave the movement a brief mention. “We are occupying Wall Street,” she said to hearty applause. She didn’t have to add “writers” to make her point. Most writers, of course, are as far removed from that reviled 1% as it is possible to be. So there was a certain pride and defiance in the air. Take that, Wall Street Fat Cats!

1. Octogenarian John Ashbery wins a medal. 2. Bloomberg Book Editor Laurie Muchnick poses with Nicholas Latimer, publicity genius at Knopf, after being directed by the photographer to “act like you’re a couple.”

1. A.J. Verdelle (author, The Good Negress) stands with sexy, smart Spiegel & Grau honcho Julie Grau — who revealed that she will be publishing Verdelle’s next novel in early 2013. Oh, and Verdelle’s partner is poet Nikky Finny, deliverer of the evening’s most awesome acceptance speech. 2. Does this man need a caption? No. But here’s the famed filmmaker and troublemaker Michael Moore, who gave us a nice smile.

But first things first: anyone who has read John Lithgow’s fine memoir, Drama: An Actor’s Education, could reasonably expect him to be as charming, self-effacing, generous, witty and kind as he appears to be in his book. He did not disappoint.Referring to his book, Lithgow lamented the “appalling dearth of celebrity memoirs in the publishing business.” He worked in a Kim Kardashian joke. And after noting the contrast between “the high art of literature and the low art of entertainment,” he pondered a world in which Philip Roth hosted the Oscars, Joan Didion might host the Emmys, and Ashbery would host the People’s Choice Awards. Who knows, it’s so crazy it just might happen.

First up was the author Walter Mosley, who presented Mitchell Kaplan, founder of Books & Books (and creator of the Miami Book Fair International), with an award for Outstanding Service to the Literary Community. Mosley was in a jocular, irreverent mood. In his introductory remarks, he praised the “handsome, hale, and hairy” Kaplan and his “hirsute mammalian quality.”

When Kaplan stepped up to the podium, he did not appear all that hairy. He had a beard, yes, but it was neatly trimmed. Nonetheless, any follicular attention was quickly re-directed. Kaplan gave a brief, humble speech, expressing his belief in “following your passion, even if it won’t make you a whole lot of money.” And he fondly recalled the indie booksellers who served as mentors while he built up his own mini-empire from a small, one-room bookshop in Miami, 30 years ago. Back then, he said, “It was the golden age of publishing. I was a 25-year-old recovering law school student.”

1. Nonfiction nominee Deborah Baker (The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism) sitting at dinner with her husband, author Amitav Ghosh. Both wore cool glasses. 2. Viking’s tall Paul Slovak and Ecco’s Dan Halpern (he of the glorious frosty ‘fro). They look as though they might be saying, “Hey, who let Lindsay Lohan in here?” But they were not.

1. Novelist (and ultra-nice guy) Darin Strauss seated at dinner next to fellow guest David Teicher. 2. The poet Nikky Finny won the National Book Award for poetry. Her stirring speech, which brought a standing ovation, probably should have won an award, too. Finny is next to Fiction award winner Jesmyn Ward, author of Salvage the Bones, seemed truly shocked to have won, and appeared nervous in the kind of way that makes you like her even more.

Then it was time for Ashbery to accept his award from Lauterbach. The poet made his way to the podium very slowly, with the aid of a cane. (He is 84 years old now.) He received a standing ovation as he reached the stage.

Lauterbach recalled first hearing Ashbery read his work in London in 1972, a time in her life when “I was trying my best to become Sylvia Plath without killing myself.”

Ashbery spoke wisely of the delights of reading “difficult” books, and pointed out that “accessibility” was not always regarded as a virtue. (His own early favorites included Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens.) “I’m still writing,” he said. “The pleasure of writing is still strong as ever.” Another standing ovation.

As for the evening’s nominees and the winners, you can check out the full list here.

1. Author Thanhha Lai, winner for YA Literature, poses for photos. 2. Nominee Yusef Komunyakaa didn’t win the poetry award tonight, but as you can see, he didn’t seem too troubled. After all, he already has a Pulitzer Prize.

Although each of the acceptance speeches were gracious and moving, one stood out above the rest: Nikky Finney’s inspiring speech for her poetry collection, Head Off & Split. For one thing, presenter Elizabeth Alexander wiped tears from her eyes as Finney spoke. And then, after Finney took her seat again, John Lithgow shook his head. “That was the best acceptance speech for anything that I’ve ever heard in my entire life,” he said, and everyone seemed to agree.

It was a pretty great speech, recounting the struggles of growing up in segregated South Carolina, where no one expected a young black girl to become literate, much less a writer. And yet there she stood this evening, at the age of 54, winner of a National Book Award.

Next the eminent scholar Stephen Greenblatt accepted his award for The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (W.W. Norton), and that left only the final award, for fiction: It went to Jesmyn Ward, author of Salvage the Bones (Bloomsbury).

1. If you stood here for a while, talking to these two men, and hoped to decide who was in fact the nicer guy, well, you would be standing here all night long — with no definitive winner in sight. Actor/Author/Awards host John Lithgow and Electric Lit co-founder Andy Hunter: two of the finest men you could ever hope to meet. 2. HarperCollins publisher Jonathan Burnham: he’s dashing, witty, well-read, charming, and devastatingly handsome. And Lynn Nesbit, power-lit agent of Janklow & Nesbit? With clients such as Joan Didion, she’s among the very best in the business. Is it obvious from this caption that HarperCollins publishes This Reporter, and Janklow & Nesbit happen to represent This Reporter? No? Good. Pure objectivity is always the journalist’s goal.

1. Of course you’d like to know who these foxy ladies are: the always-tall Kathleen Massara of Melville House, cool writer Camille Perri, and the ace Amazon editor Katie Salisbury. While this photo was being taken, a few partygoers — trying to make their way through the crowd — tripped on the photographer’s umbrella, which was lying on the floor below — a safety hazard if there ever was one. 2. Brigid Hughes, A Public Space’s founding editor, and previous 5 Under 35 honoree Fional Maazel, looking beautiful, as always.

1. THIS is a dance party. 2. Ryan Chapman, the Online Marketing Manager at FSG, & Sarah Reidy, the Publicity Director of Other Press, having no fun whatsoever.

And then? Time for the BOMB after-party: more drinking and a bit of dancing. It’s a well-known fact that no one knows how to party quite like a room full of writers, editors, agents, and other assorted literary types.

This was a fun night. Everyone looked happy…

1. It’s not a party unless Jonathan Ames does something homoerotic. 2. Wylin’ out on the dance floor. Eventually, two people fell over and then made out.

… And, by the end of the night, everyone looked quite drunk, too. Surprisingly (maybe not surprisingly), the dance floor was packed with publishers and writers, all doing their best to bust a move. Some succeeded, some failed — these were lit types, after all — but regardless everyone seemed to be having a great time, courtesy of BOMB, the open bar, and a universal love of literature. We left right around one, when the party was scheduled to end, but it seemed like no one really wanted to go home.

— Carmela Ciuraru is the author of NOM DE PLUME: A (SECRET) HISTORY OF PSEUDONYMS, recently published by HarperCollins. (A paperback edition is due out next summer.) She lives in Brooklyn.

After-party coverage by Julia Jackson, Events Editor, Benjamin Samuel, Online Editor, and Halimah Marcus, Managing Editor.

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