National Book Awards Occupy Wall Street, Boogie Down

By Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World, @JDGsaid

Who won at the National Book Awards, held last night in lower Manhattan?

By all accounts, the lamb-eating attendees, the institution of dancing, speeches in prose by poets, emotional speeches, a movement for the literary community to occupy Wall Street and, oh yeah, Jesmyn Ward, Stephen Greenblatt, Thanhha Lai and Nikky Finney, who walked out of Cipriani Wall Street into the rainy New York night with the NBA hardware.

Ward, who won the prize for fiction for her Hurricane Katrina novel Salvage the Bones (Bloomsbury USA), cried on the podium as she spoke of the death of her younger brother and how it inspired her to write. It was the culmination of a night of emotional speeches that paid tribute to the impoverished, displaced and suffering, according to the Associated Press, which also noted the lavish vaulted ceilings at the “luxury venue” for the event.

Mention was made of Occupy Wall Street at the event by poet Ann Lauterbach, who introduced poet John Ashbery, who was given a medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

“We are occupying Wall Street,” she said. While perhaps true, this occupation was more in a black-tie, rack-of-lamb-for-dinner sort of way.

Greenblatt’s book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (W. W. Norton & Co.), has outsold all of the other winning works in print by a factor of five-to-one, according to Publisher’s Marketplace. Last night’s events could, of course, change that, as this morning Bloomsbury announced that it was publishing 50,000 more copies of Salvage the Bones – also via Publisher’s Marketplace.

A wave of relief swept over the National Book Foundation when Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again (Harper) was accurately announced as the young people’s literature winner. Lauren Myracle’s Shine was mistakenly announced as a finalist instead of Franny Billingsley’s Chime in the lead-up to the awards last month, a gaff referenced by awards judge Marc Aronson, who blamed the affair on an “oral malfunction” – in a way, a “wardrobe malfunction” for the Foundation.

Finney, who was honored for her poetry in Head Off & Split (TriQuarterly), also won the “Best Acceptance Speech John Lithgow Has Ever Heard” award for her emotional call-out of slaves who were deliberately kept illiterate.

“That was the best acceptance speech I’ve ever heard from anyone in my entire life,” Lithgow said as he ascended to the podium after her speech.

Lithgow, who hosted the show, was looking very literate at the podium in his dress-wear and requisite-for-the-publishing-world black-framed glasses; he even took a stab at the craft celebrated by the occasion.

“I wish I were one of those people who could blithely speak off the cuff all evening…but I’m not…and, besides, this is an evening all about writing, so, by god, I’ve written something,” he said and then proceeded with his speech to praise the literary world, degrade celebrity culture, and explained where the twain meet: actor and author, John Lithgow. He has written a series of children’s books as well as a personal history (Drama: An Actor’s Education (Harper), which came out this September.

After the presentation, doors were opened to the “riff-raff – junior editors, young agents, reporters, literary party stalwart Jon-Jon Goulian,” according to the New York Observer and that’s when the real fun began. Much was made of the dancing on Twitter (@tomstonemayer, Tom Mayer, a senior editor at Norton, wrote the best part was seeing Alane Mason, the editor behind Greenblatt’s book “dancing it up” and @mrmullin, Digital Book World’s own community relation’s manager wrote that “nobody dances like @calvinreid and @yrstrulyREL,” Publishers Weekly senior news editor Calvin Reid and Random House VP, director of account marketing Ruth Leibmann). The Observer also noted much schmoozing and even cigar-smoking.

A bit uptown, though with more of a “downtown” feel, a younger set watched the awards on flat-screen monitors and projected on a wall at the AAP’s Young to Publishing Group’s second annual House Party on National Book Awards night, held at Tribeca’s M1-5 dance bar. Proceeds from the event went to Brooklyn-based non-profit 826NYC, which supports students and teachers in learning and teaching writing. The merry-making and, yes, dancing, was led there by Kate Childs, chair of the Young to Publishing group. As winners at the ritzy awards show were announced, cheers went up from various factions in the room who enjoyed, rather than cigars, an open dessert-bar of cupcakes and other sweets. There was also pizza.

Other notes: Mitchell Kaplan, the owner of Miami bookstore Books & Books, was given an award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community…Lithgow helped to the podium an initially frail-looking John Ashbery, who dispelled any thoughts of frailty with his resounding speech about his career and poetry…videos of the awards presentation can be seen here.

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