At the 68th National Book Awards, held at Cipriani Wall Street in Lower Manhattan on Wednesday night, politics were again front and center in the publishing world.
Award-winning actress Cynthia Nixon, of Sex and the City fame, served as emcee for the evening. The granddaughter of a rare book dealer, she drew a line between love for books and the importance of books in helping us care about each other.
"I grew up playing between the stacks—the sight, the intoxicating musty smell," she said. "It is important to me now, as I'm sure it's important to all of you, that we perpetuate a culture that celebrated books and the worlds of culture they open to us.... All books offer us something we need so desperately right now: broadened perspectives."
Nixon then introduced President Bill Clinton—one of a family of three bestselling authors—who introduced Scholastic president and CEO Dick Robinson, the recipient of the 2017 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the Literary Community.
"I think that everyone who likes to read should have a good appreciation of what it takes to put a book together and get it to a reader," Clinton said. "Because of people like Dick, the gap—by race and ethnicity and income—in the readiness to start school is closing rapidly.... Dick Robinson has won a lot of awards. But I don't think he's ever going to win [an award] that will reflect his heart better."
Robinson, in accepting his award, thanked Clinton for his own service to the youth of America and the reading public, as well as National Book Awards executive director Lisa Lucas and chairman David Steinberger for the honor, and encouraged diversity in books.
"I always wanted to be a writer, and to at this book awards, I've seen all these great-looking—and great—writers...but I'm happy to be here tonight to be honored for being a great reader," he said. "Research says that if children choose and own their books, they are much more likely to finish them....Scholastic is privileged to be the link between the child, the school, and the book."
"We don't want the world to become 20% reading haves and 80% have-nots," he added. "We have a huge stake in establishing a level playing field where everyone reads and understands.... This is why I believe reading for all is an important idea for you to take away tonight."
Nixon then announced fellow actress (and Academy Award–winner) Anne Hathaway, who presented the Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters to fiction writer Annie Proulx.
"As Cynthia so brightly observed, some other organizations might call it the lifetime achievement award, but why use four words when you could use eight and a thesaurus?" she said. "To have stripped people to the bone and still remember their grace—even allow them romance.... It really is only the bravest among us who can turn, look the stark truth of humanity in the face, not turn into a pillar of salt."
She added: "She has communicated to our world...who we are. And, perhaps more significantly, what we're actually feeling.... We are richer because of the deceptively simple, devastatingly precise poetry of Ms. Proulx."
Proulx, accepting the award, told the audience that although the award was for a lifetime achievement, "I didn't start writing until I was 58," calling herself "surprised when I learned of it" and thanking her editor, Nan Graham, "as it is her medal too." She added: "For some, this is a heady time of brilliant technological innovation.... For others, it is the opening of a savagely difficult book without a happy ending....[Yet] we still hope for a happy ending. We still believe that we can save ourselves and our damaged earth, an indescribably difficult task...but we keep on trying, because there's nothing else to do. The happy ending still beckons, and it is in hope of grasping it that we go on."
Following dinner, Lucas and Steinberger took to the mic to congratulate the finalists and lifetime achievement honorees, thank their sponsors, and introduce the awards portion of the evening.
"There's just seven of us—we're tiny, but mighty," Lucas said of the National Book Foundation. "Tonight is about the power of story, and the story of the National Book Foundation...is of connecting books with readers....Thank you so much for believing in us, and thank you so much for believing in books."
Following their remarks, Nixon took the mic back, announcing that this year, 15 of the 20 finalists are women. She then introduced Young People's Literature panel chair and Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass author Meg Medina, who announced that Robin Benway had won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature for Far from the Tree (HarperTeen).
"No one gives you an adrenaline rush like the National Book Foundation, oh my gosh—three times in two months, oh, wow," Benway said. To her fellow finalists, she said: "Your books have just been so beautiful, and to see my title amongst yours is something I don't think I've quite understood yet." She added: "Creativity is not inspiration. It's not that bolt of lightning. It's about getting up and making the coffee and finding the room that bolt of lightning lit for just one moment."
Poet Monica Youn—whose Blackacre was longlisted for the National Book Award last year—then announced that Frank Bidart, who has been thrice nominated for the award, had won the National Book Award for Poetry for Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
A visibly moved Bidart, upon receiving the award, said: "I realize during the past month that I'm almost twice as old as any of the other finalists. Writing the poems was how I survived."
Author Paula J. Giddings, who teaches Africana Studies at Smith College, announced that Masha Gessen had won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (Riverhead).
Gessen, who chaired the panel of judges for nonfiction last year, said "I was rooting for another finalist," and that she never believed that a book on Russia could win the award but "things of course have, uh, changed." She added: "Thank you so much for reading it, and choosing and honoring it."
Finally, National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson took the stage to name Jesmyn Ward the winner of the National Book Award in Fiction for Sing, Unburied, Sing (Scribner). It is Ward's second NBA for Fiction, and she is the first black person and the first woman to win two NBAs.
"People will not read your work, because they are not universal stories," Ward recounted hearing over the years as she submitted her work for publication. To her readers and publishers, she said: "You looked at me and the people I write about, you looked at my poor and black and women and children, and you saw yourself." She added, addressing the audience and her family: "Thank you for loving me, for supporting me, for encouraging me to be exactly who I am, and for letting me reimagine and amplify your lives and voices."