The National Book Awards on November 18 proved to be a triumph for Farrar, Straus &Giroux, whose authors took three of the four awards -- and a dazzling surprise in the Fiction category, where Alice McDermott beat out such high-profile contenders as Tom Wolfe and Robert Stone.

There were a number of novelties at the NBA ceremonies this year: the Marriott Marquis ballroom was cleverly decorated (by Neil Stuart), lined with pictures and covers of the candidates, and with dazzling autumnal trees brightening the podium; and the acceptance speech for the NBA's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, often a drawn-out anticlimax at the end of a long evening, was made at the start, to an audience still fresh and receptive.

Since the honoree this year was John Updike, and his remarks were particularly elegant and elegiac, this proved a wise move. Updike recalled his first appearance as a winner, back in 1964 (for The Centaur), and mischievously quoted the account of the event Tom Wolfe (this year's fiction favorite for A Man in Full) had written at the time for the old Herald Tribune. He was still "giddy from that elevated moment," said Updike, and he commented, on his other appearances, that "I seem to return, like a great comet, every 17 years or so, from the great darkness of the unnominated." He made sly comparisons of the occasion with the Hollywood Oscar ceremony, and concluded that the publishing business "d sn't need glamour when it has the beauty of the book." His tribute to the late Alfred Knopf and to Judith Jones, his longtime editor at the house, made clear the personal link between authors and their editors and publishers that was the theme for much of the evening.

For it was a night virtually given over to independent publishers rather than to the big corporate houses, whose authors received only a thin scattering of nominations. In Nonfiction, the award was finally given, after having "gone down to the wire," according to the judges, to Edward Ball for his first book, Slaves in the Family (FSG), an account of how this descendant of a slave-owning Georgia family has tried to make reparations for the past; and Ball said he would continue to do so by setting aside 25% of his income from the book for a multicultural foundation that would help continue the "atonement."

In Young People's Literature, the winner was Louis Sachar for Holes (FSG/Frances Foster Books), a comic fable about the troubles of a fat teenage boy in Texas. Sachar said he had worked hard to accept that any of the other nominees was more likely to win, aided in this by his 11-year-old daughter, who read all of the other finalists' books to see what they were like, saying after each one: "Bad news, Dad."

Gerald Stern, who won in P try for This Time: New &Selected P ms (Norton) was perhaps the only clear favorite to be chosen. All the other finalists, he declared, were friends, and "worthy of this or any other award," and he added: "I apologize for winning over you all."

Thomas Mallon, chair of the Fiction judges, seemed aware he was about to spring a major surprise on the audience when he said that among all the "very impressive machinery" of the more than 200 submissions, the judges had found a small but unmistakably individual voice, which in the end could not be shut out. It was that of Alice McDermott, a previous finalist (in 1984), whose Charming Billy (FSG) got the nod. McDermott, clearly astonished and unprepared, said her Irish mother would have found such an award "not an entirely good thing," being likely to give her a "swelled head" -- but she promised to try not to show it. And she concluded, as did virtually all the winners, with personal words of thanks to the agent and editor who had sustained her in her work -- in this case Harriet Wasserman and Jonathan Galassi.

And in the end, despite the more than 800 people whose attendance contributed, said National Book Foundation chief Neil Baldwin, more than $500,000 to the NBF, it was as that kind of highly personal occasion that the 49th running of the awards will be most warmly remembered.