A little-known academic writing about segregation in Detroit in the early 20th century won the 2004 National Book Award for nonfiction over a much more publicized nominee, while a veteran novelist helped HarperCollins win its first award in several years.
Arc of Justice, Kevin Boyle's story of segregation and real estate in early 20th-century Detroit (Holt) beat out The 9/11 Commission Report, ending speculation about who would accept the award for that book and how its selection might be received by the media. Boyle, an Ohio State University history professor, also saw his 11-year-old daughter, Abby, take the stage earlier in the evening to read as part of a tribute to Judy Blume, who won the award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
Lily Tuck's 19th-century-set novel The News from Paraguay took the prize amid criticism over the shortlist, which some had described as too insular in both tone and author profile. (All five nominees were women from New York, and their styles generally were described as more poetic and less plot-driven.) Tuck noted that the five authors had become closer because of the controversy.
Chair Rick Moody, who had come under the most scrutiny for the choices, said that the committee used "one criterion"—"excellence"—in choosing the nominees. The group, he said, ignored factors such as "popularity," "gender" and "region, belief or color."
Pete Hautman won the Young People's Literature award for Godless, from S&S Books for Young Readers, a semi-satiric novel exploring questions of religion and adolescence. In the poetry category, the award went to Jean Valentine's Door in the Mountain from Wesleyan University Press, a collection of new and old work with the occasional political edge.
It wasn't a good sign for The 9/11 Commission Report when it initially was left off the presenter's announcement of nominees (a sharp Harold Augenbraum, the NBF executive director, stood up to remind the presenter). In an interview with PW, Thomas Kean, who, as the chair of the 9/11 commission, wore the nominee's medal, said he saw a link between award recognition and political effects. "Even getting nominated means the report will get more readers," which, he said, in turn means a greater likelihood of Congress passing its recommendations.
The awards marked something of a change from previous years. Both Random House and Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which had won five of the last eight awards handed out and published seven of the 16 books that won this decade, went away empty-handed. Instead, HarperCollins took its first prize since Homeless Bird won the Young People's prize in 2000, and Holt took its first since 1999, the year When Zachary Beaver Came to Town scored in the same category.
Host Garrison Keillor kept his attention largely off particular nominees and on the general state of reading. He pointed to what he called publishing's open secret: too few people reading the books they buy, in describing a gift of Moby Dick as what one gives to Uncle Walt "to compliment him on his intelligence... that he could read it." Keillor quipped that when he came across the "two or three" actual readers in this country, he approached them cautiously, "like threatened caribou."
Blume's speech was not as provocative as Stephen King's last year, when he exhorted the audience to read more genre authors and pointedly described how he once suffered in poverty, to refute the idea that he came by his success with little difficulty. Blume gave a more genial explanation of how she started writing as a 20-something mother in suburbia and also shared some comical responses to her books from child readers ("Please send the facts of life, in numbered order") and adult ones ("You are rude, crude... vexed, perplexed and oversexed. When can we have lunch?") On a more serious note, Blume spoke of the attempts to censor her work and saluted those trying to stop censorship—like ABFFE's Chris Finan—and to amend Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
In an interview later, Hautman described Blume's influence as a matter of talent and timing. "If she came along 10 years earlier, she wouldn't have been able to break through. If she came along 10 years later, she wouldn't have mattered as much."
Hautman, who gave a forcefully eloquent speech about the dangers of getting locked into one's own reading tastes, also had one of the best lines of the night. Speaking of his book's topic, he thanked his wife: "[I] told her I was writing a book about children who worship a water tower and she didn't try to stop me."
Another choice line came from News from Paraguay author Tuck, who, speaking about the inspiration for her book, said dryly, "Actually, I've never been to Paraguay, nor do I intend to go."