National Book Awards

1. The banquet hall at around 6:30, before everything started. 2. Melanie Tortoroli, who works as an editor for W.W. Norton, Rosemary Brosnan, an editor, Rita Williams-Garcia, whose book One Crazy Summer was nominated for the Young People’s Literature NBA, & Garcia-Williams’s daughter, Stephanie Garcia. Brosnan has been Williams-Garcia’s editor for 24 years, which was, of course, the year that both women entered kindergarten.

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Last night I attended the Oscars. Actually it was the National Book Awards, but it felt like the Oscars, and since this was a literary crowd and not a Hollywood one, the ceremony was populated by those who looked a lot “realer” than at the actual Oscars. People schmoozed and got photographed beforehand, and there was lots of champagne and hors d’œuvres (which were sometimes tweeted about). After a couple of hours of this, the actual ceremony began, which was hosted by Andy Borowitz. This was apparently his second time with these honors. He made all sorts of “funny” jokes about the state of the publishing industry (Oh, you mean the publishing industry isn’t doing so well? HA! HILARIOUS), and then told us some good things about the publishing industry, such as the fact that 2010 was clearly the Year of the Man, since three (three!) men were up in the ten slots for fiction and nonfiction. Yes, men are obviously making great strides in this historically female-dominated world.

1. Fausto Bozza, who works in production for Simon & Schuster, Steve Slawsky, who does the same for Random House, & Paul Nardi, who works for Arvato Print USA. These gentleman said they are happy to be here, and hope Peter Carey wins (I guess their prayers weren’t loud enough. Next time try talking to God in ALL CAPS). 2. Rachel Syme, who is the Books Editor for NPR News. She told me that she loved Patti Smith with “a vengeance that verged on obsession,” so she hoped she’d win. Obviously Syme has been praying in caps. (She also looks fabulous, btw.)

First up was the Literarian Award (“Is that even a word,” Borowitz said. “Apparently the NBA can make up words, like Sarah Palin.”), which was taken home by Joan Ganz Cooney. Jon Scieszka (author of one of my favorite picture books as a child, The Stinky Cheese Man) was there to introduce her, along with Elmo, who is apparently voiced by a large black man. Muppet industry secrets revealed! Ganz Cooney said that it felt “great to be applauded by those who are trying to save civilization.”

1. Laura McNeal, whose book Dark Water was nominated for the Young People’s Literature NBA, along with her son Hank, who was excited to dress up like James Bond for the event. 2. Peter Carey, who was nominated for “welding” (or for his book Parrot and Olivier in America in the fiction category), & poet James Fenton.

Tina Brown of The Daily Beast introduced the next winner, Tom Wolfe, who was the recipient of the Distinguished Contribution to American Letters award. Wolfe came out in an all white tux, looking frail but sharp, and then promised us that he’d tell us about his life in six minutes. Well, it took him a lot longer than six minutes to get through it, and even though dinner was waiting, it was still fucking Tom Wolfe so no one seemed to mind much.

1. Nate Freeman, who works for The Observer, & Daniel Riley, who works for GQ. Both men wanted a drink that was stronger than the Bellinis (?) they had in their hands. 2. Jamie Raab, of Grand Central Publishing, & novelist Elinor Lipman. Lipman said she was a judge in 2008 and because of this she gets to be invited back.

After dinner, we learned about the process for selecting the winners. Apparently on the day of the ceremony, the judges sit down to lunch and are instructed that they can’t get up til they select a winner. They don’t tell anyone about the decisions so that everyone finds out together during the actual ceremony.

1. The reception area, shortly before dinner began. 2. Fiction NBA winner (but at the time of this photo, she was still a nominee) Jaimy Gordon, along with Bill Clegg, an agent, & John Freeman, editor for Granta magazine. Gordon told me that he just heard someone ask about someone else’s neck size.

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Kathryn Erskine won the Young People’s Literature NBA for her book Mockingbird, and Terrance Hayes won for Poetry for his book Lighthead, apparently by unanimous vote.

And then Patti Smith won for Nonfiction for her book Just Kids, and suddenly we were all reminded of how redeeming awards ceremonies can be. The crowd cheered loudly upon hearing her name announced, and Smith was obviously on the verge of tears as she took the stage. She told us about when she used to be a clerk at Scribner, how she unpacked the National Book Award winners each year and, while shelving them, wondered what it felt like to be an author who won one. “Thank you for letting me find out,” she said, choking up. She plead with us to please not abandon the book, no matter how much we, as a society, advance technologically. “Nothing in our material world is more beautiful than the book,” she said, causing the crowd to erupt in enthusiastic applause.

1. Tom Wolfe on the big screen. 2. Pretending to be paparazzi for Patti Smith. Please be proud of me — I was just a few feet away from this wonderful woman and I managed to not attack her with creepy hugs or declarations of love.

Jaimy Gordon won for her book Lord of Misrule, which apparently took her by complete surprise. The table she had been sitting at was shrieking, and it took her a few moments to get over her shock and head up to the stage — it felt pretty wonderful to witness her joy. Because she wasn’t prepared to win, her speech was very brief, which was a relief to me because the night had been very long. For some, however, the night was just getting started — after the ceremony there is always the afterparty.

–Julia Jackson is working on her MFA in fiction at Brooklyn College, and is a regular contributor for Electric Dish.

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