Young Lions Fiction Award 2012 — Three Roars for Karen Russell!

1. The Celeste Bartos Forum, shortly before the ceremony. 2. Crosley, Lerner, Cole, Marx, Hale, & Crudup. You can tell I’m a fake journalist/photographer who was sneaking into this shot, because they’re all looking at the real journalist with the big flash, and not at me with my point-and-shoot.

In 2001, the Young Lions Fiction Award was founded by Ethan Hawke, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, Rick Moody, and Hannah McFarland as a way to encourage and celebrate the work of a young author (“young,” in this case, is defined as under 35). This year, the nominees included Teju Cole (Open City), Benjamin Hale (The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore), Ben Lerner (Leaving the Atocha Station), Karen Russell (Swamplandia!), and Jesmyn Ward (Salvage the Bones). The awards ceremony was hosted by actor Billy Crudup (from Jesus’ Son, omgz!) at the main branch of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street on Monday night.

1. The nominees’ books. Not pictured: Swamplandia!. (Someone must have had a premonition that this title would win and thus snagged the copy off my table.) 2. Hale, Lerner, & Cole, proving that if you want to be a male who is nominated for such awards, you have to own a pair of thick-rimmed, black eyeglasses. 3. Crudup reading for Cole. What a pal.

Crudup opened the evening by telling us that normally Hawke hosts the event, but he had to be out of the country. Hawke, Crudup said, is able to speak “eloquently and passionately” about art, but as Steve Martin once said, “Some people have a way with words, and some not have way.” Instead, Crudup thought he should get straight to the program.

1. Benjamin Hale with writer Katie Assef & Assef’s husband. 2. Katherine, Sabrina, Julie, Kathrina, and Daniel, rapt.

Crudup read excerpts of Cole, Lerner, and Hale’s novels, and writer Sloan Crosley (How Did You Get This Number) read excerpts from Russell and Ward’s. All of the excerpts were from the beginning of the books: Cole’s featured a reflection on seeing New York City from an airplane, Russell’s of Hilola Bigtree swimming in front of a crowd with alligators, Hale’s opened with Littlemore explaining the experiment that indicated he was an extraordinary chimp, Ward’s with the storm that shaped her book, and Lerner’s with the scene in the museum of the profound experience of art. It was nice to see that a good book begins with a good beginning, one that immerses the reader quickly and wholly into the world that they are about to submit themselves to. The two readers did a wonderful job of breathing a different life into the work, which was an especially interesting experience for me, since I had heard all the authors except for Ward read their own work before, and I could at least vaguely recall the differences between the two readings. Crudup adorably mispronounced a few words, and this managed to endear him, and his reading of the works, further to me.

1. Crosely reading for Ward. 2. Marx, speaking on the virtues of fiction. 3. Ken channeling Karen.

After the readings, the New York Public Library president, Tony Marx, offered up a few words. He told us about the Young Lions program, which is “a special membership group for library supporters in their 20s and 30s.” We learned about the award itself, which is designed to encourage writers at an important time in their careers. And Marx spoke on the importance of fiction, which allows us to “think about the unexpected.” And then the winner was announced: Karen Russell. She was in Germany and unable to make it to the event, but her little brother Ken graciously accepted the award and read her speech, which reflected the eloquence and humor that can be found in Swamplandia!.

Russell, by way of Ken, told us that her first nomination, for her 2009 book, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, had given her so much courage and hope, and this enabled her to write her novel. She said that she was honored to be nominated alongside Cole, Hale, Lerner, and Ward, and hoped they would continue writing together until they were “wheezy donkeys.” At one point during the speech, Ken read, “Ken, you are the best brother and my favorite writer,” which caused Marx to briefly interrupt and say, “Does it really say that?”

After the ceremony, the Young Lions, the nominees, and the rest of the crowd celebrated with a deliciously open bar, under the “flattering light” (Russell’s words) of the New York Public Library’s Celeste Bartos Forum.

To join the Young Lions program, please go here.

Open City

by Teju Cole

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore

by Benjamin Hale

Leaving the Atocha Station

by Ben Lerner

Swamplandia! (Vintage Contemporaries)

by Karen Russell

Salvage the Bones

by Jesmyn Ward


— Julia Jackson is the editor of Electric Dish. To find her on the internet, please go here.

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