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The 2013 National Book Awards: Needs More Wit and Suspense, Enough with the Old Coots

If Wednesday night represented an elegant soothsaying session determining where American literature is heading, then white men who cannot embrace the tenor of our time are being shown the door. I contend that this is a good thing. Dr. Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison radiated such pure joy and effusive class on the dais, with Morrison defiantly refusing her wheelchair and Angelou belting out an inspirational tune, that the hoary and vastly overrated writer E.L. Doctorow easily made the case for his own obsolescence with an indulgent anti-Internet screed that felt like the late Andy Rooney rambling without editorial consultation. “A search engine is not an engine,” said Doctorow. “A bookmark is not a bookmark because an e-book is not a book.” Well, a writer is not a speaker, especially when he cannot hear the hollow rattle in his burned out subwoofer.

Behatted author James McBride beat out Thomas Pynchon and George Saunders to win the Fiction award for The Good Lord Bird, observing how the novel had kept him company as his marriage was dissolving. Of the distinguished competition, McBride said, “They are fine writers. But it sure is nice to be here.”

Cynthia Kadohata claimed the Young People’s Literature award for The Thing About Luck, noting, “I didn’t write a speech because I thought it would be bad luck. I guess it worked out.”

Mary Szybist won the Poetry award for her collection Incarnadine. “Poetry is the place where speaking differently is the most prevalent,” she said just before softly tearing up on stage. She thanked “the mother who made me,” and accepted her award with great grace.

George Packer took the Nonfiction award for The Unwinding, a blistering depiction of the ongoing war against the American middle class. He proved the Flaubert maxim by accepting his laurels with the ease of a relaxed and dedicated man valuing calm before work. He thanked his kids. He thanked his wife for “sharing my life and my work.”

The awards ceremony was not helped by host Mika Brzezinski. Despite her past valiant efforts to destroy Morning Joe scripts containing trivial news, Brzezinski was the height of superfluousness on Wednesday night. She offered tired and groan-inducing gags about the Random House/Penguin merger and was so hopelessly amateurish that she set up the Fiction category before Nonfiction, only to backpedal as the giant screens at Cipriani flashed to an awkward title card.

The newly introduced longlist of ten titles per category, revealed just before the finalists, has added a juddering layer of suspense for book geeks. The National Book Foundation is also to be lauded for working hard in recent years to get the awards televised and live streamed. But something has gone terribly amiss in the host selection department. If the National Book Awards is to reach the American public, we need real wit written by professional comedy writers. We need hosts who will seamlessly run a show. We need people who read.

We also need to hand out lifetime awards to writers who represent a truer link between the past and the future. Maya Angelou was that person. E.L. Doctorow was not.

SAUNDERS George

George Saunders (2013 National Book Awards Audio Interview)

George Saunders is nominated for the Fiction Award for Tenth of December. Saunders told me he had never attended the ceremony before and that he has a 17% chance of winning. Since he is a very optimistic guy, I asked him about the future of books. I also presented Saunders with this inquiry: Given how Joyce could construct Dublin from the bricks set down in Ulysses, what city could be constructed from the works of George Saunders?

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Gene Luen Yang (2013 National Book Awards Audio Interview)

Gene Luen Yang is nominated for the Young People’s Literature Award in this year’s National Book Awards. I ran into Yang on the floor before the National Book Awards and chatted with him for about three minutes about the intersection between comics and literary work.

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2012 National Book Awards: An Evening for Readers

Despite the slight efforts to amp up the glam factor, Thursday night’s National Book Awards was an evening for readers. The readers — whether authors, publishing people, journalists, or people who sauntered into the swank ballroom from the street — drank vast quantities of alcohol and scarfed down canapés and danced to butchered remixes of “Staying Alive.” While dodgy slices of cheese pizza went largely untouched, this reporter observed pigs in a blanket traveling down dark gullets well after the midnight hour. This reporter also participated in this snacking, inspired in part by numerous shots of scotch downed not long before.

More importantly than these stray gustatory observations, the readers won the awards. William Alexander name-checked Ursula K. Le Guin upon winning the Young People’s Literature award for Goblin Secrets. He was so startled at his victory that he had modest difficulty exiting the stage, moving left and right and left and right until he figured out this Hanayama chain puzzle writ large with a bit of instinct. The awkward cue from Robbie Williams’s “Millennium” which played throughout the evening vexed certain audience members, but Elmore Leonard’s stirring speech for a lifetime award was a rousing corrective to Tom Wolfe’s rambling nonsense from two years before.

“The only thing I’ve ever wanted to do in my life is have a good time writing stories,” said Leonard to a very appreciative crowd who offered him a standing ovation. “This award tells me I’m still at it.”

Leonard’s presentation was buttressed by an introduction by Martin Amis, who declared, “The essence of Elmore is to be found in his use of the present participle.” Amis may have been toying with the audience. His bowtie was crooked. He read Leonard’s pulp prose with a modest froideur. And while he didn’t sprint from reporters like Dave Eggers, Amis was out the door before the ceremony was over. Several observers I talked with hoped he would take this cheeky act on the road. But this banter halted when it was understood that more important matters needed to be considered: namely, the titles up for consideration.

Katherine Boo’s Behind Beautiful Forevers trounced veteran historian Robert A. Caro in the Nonfiction category. “If this prize means anything,” said Boo upon accepting the award, “it’s this. Small stories matter.” This reporter felt that it was more than a bit boorish to offer superficial questions to a first-rate journalist who had spent years of her life earning the trust of those who lived in the makeshift settlement of Annawadi. I told Ms. Boo how much I had loved her book. She offered me a hug.

Upon winning the Fiction award, Louise Erdrich thanked the tuxedoed throng for giving The Round House “a wider audience.” Both Erdrich and Boo were spotted on the dance floor having a very good time, with Erdrich sneaking into a Kobo kiosk to take silly photos.

To gauge the level of literary enthusiasm, this reporter danced virulently on the mezzanine floor, bouncing up and down with preternatural energy. Through the use of sense memory from his clubbing years in his twenties, this reporter was able to sway his arms excitedly in the air and spin on his heel in a matter approximating John Travolta in his peak years. These efforts were received with considerable hoots and hollers by several women on the floor — in large part because this reporter was one of the few men dancing.

But some of the poets, despite their advanced years, were also busting some moves. Earlier in the evening, this reporter was perturbed to see the poets rebuffed by the smug know-it-alls at Book TV. In an effort to correct this oversight, this reporter chatted with them.

“I’m told by the publisher that it sold some books,” said poet David Ferry about being nominated for the Poetry award, “which for a poet is a surprise and a pleasure.” The 88-year-old Ferry had been writing poetry since he was 25. One of Ferry’s best friends was fellow nominee Alan Shapiro. “We sort of whisper endearments into each other’s ears.” When I discussed the state of poetry with both Ferry and Shapiro, pointing out that Judi Dench had recited Tennyson’s “Ulysses” in the latest James Bond film Skyfall, Shapiro observed that poetry was the first “technology of feeling.”

Ferry would go on to win the Poetry Award for Bewilderment. He was tongue-tied and bewildered on stage, but he was grateful to be recognized.

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Dave Eggers, National Book Award Finalist, Refuses to Answer About Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s Violent Assaults

Dave Eggers is running away from the truth. And we have the video to prove it.

In 2009, Dave Eggers self-published Zeitoun, a well-received nonfiction volume which told the story of a hard-working Syrian-American painter in New Orleans who emerged as a hero during Hurricane Katrina. Eggers relied heavily on what his subjects, Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his wife Kathy, told him while working on the book. As he claimed in a Rumpus interview, “I think you get the most accuracy when you involve your subjects as much as possible. I think I sent the manuscript to the Zeitouns for six or seven reads. They caught little inaccuracies each time.”

Recent developments have revealed that Zeitoun is a misleading feel-good hagiography running against this apparent commitment to accuracy. The New York Times Book Review‘s Timothy Egan suggested that Eggers was a modern-day “Charles Dickens, his sentimentality in check but his journalistic eyes wide open.” But Eggers has glossed over a good deal more than what Egan has insinuated. Abdulrahman Zeitoun is not the calm and peaceful man that Eggers portrayed.

On November 8th, Zeitoun was indicted for attempted first-degree murder and solicitation of first-degree murder. Kathy had suffered abuse from the beginning of her marriage to Abdulrahman. In court, Kathy testified about being beaten with a tire iron and being “[choked] so hard I felt the pressure in my face.”

Last August, when we reported on the Zeitoun Foundation’s questionable finances, we discovered that at least $161,331 (during the year 2009) was siphoned off to a shadowy organization named Jableh, LLC. We reached out to various representatives from McSweeney’s by telephone and email, but they refused to speak with us. (We did, however, receive a threatening email from an attorney. We responded by asking the attorney to provide us with specific evidence that would clear up matters. He did not return our email.) Throughout these developments, Eggers has remained silent, save for a statement that appeared on the Zeitoun Foundation’s website which has since been deleted.

On Wednesday night, we decided to question Dave Eggers at the National Book Awards in person, where he was being feted as a finalist for his latest novel, A Hologram for the King, hoping that Eggers would break his silence and provide us with a clear-eyed statement on these serious mistakes and moral indiscretions.

But Eggers ran away at the name of “Abdulrahman Zeitoun.” The video can be seen below:

Eggers’s silence (along with that of mainstream literary outlets) is baffling. Even Norman Mailer famously declared during the Jack Abbott affair that culture is worth a little risk. If Eggers is interested in culture, should he not come to terms with his mistakes? Should he not own up to the negative impact that his book and his involvement may have had on the Zeitouns’ lives?

John Simerman’s helpful dispatches in the New Orleans Times-Picayune illustrate why staying silent or taking the rose-tinted path is a blatant and irresponsible disregard for the truth. On October 18th, Kathy Zeitoun testified in court about the abuses:

He starts beating me in the back with this tire iron. He lets go of the tire iron and starts punching me, then he started ripping the flesh from my side through my clothes.

and

He was choking me so hard I felt the pressure in my face. I thought I was going to pass out. He grabbed my face and dug his claws, his fingernails, in my face.

This is a far cry from Eggers’s glowing depiction of Abdulrahman as a tranquil hero. Eggers describes how “Zeitoun felt at peace,” with “an odd calm in his heart.” Abdulrahman’s origins as a thirteen-year-old fisherman involves a concern for quietude, where his compatriots “would whisper over the sea, telling jokes and talking about women and girls as they watched the fish rise and spin beneath them. Eggers even describes Abdulrahman telling Kathy, “Please be calm. Don’t make it worse,” while approaching a bus station.

It was Kathy’s testimony which led to Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s indictment for attempted first-degree murder and solicitation for first-degree murder during the late afternoon of November 8th. Abdulrahman has remained in jail, with the bail set at more than $1 million. A gag order has prevented Kathy and Abdulrahman’s attorney, J.C. Lawrence, from saying anything beyond their remarks in the courtroom. Eggers is certainly in a position to say something and emerge from this contretemps with some integrity, yet he wishes to pretend as if nothing terrible has gone on. At least that’s what we see on the surface. Under the seams, it’s a much different story.

Back in August, we reported on how The Zeitoun Foundation was not being transparent about the way it disseminated funds. While The Zeitoun Foundation is now listed as “in good standing” with the Louisiana Secretary of State (as of September 10, 2012, which is when the last annual report was filed), our search through several nonprofit public databases have not unearthed any new 990s. Furthermore, there isn’t any new information about Jableh, LLC. As we noted in August, Jableh was incorporated on July 16, 2009. It listed Dave Eggers as the registered agent. The 2009 990 for The Zeitoun Foundation declared that $161,331 was due to Jableh, LLC, which exceeded the $145,476 in revenue taken in by The Zeitoun Foundation for that year ($84,044 in royalty income from the book, $50,000 in film rights, and $11,432 in “contributions, gifts, grants, and similar amounts received”). According to Eggers’s book, Jableh is where Abdulrahman Zeitoun was born and lived for a while.

In our efforts to answer these questions, Michelle Quint, the accountable director for Zeitoun, refused to return our phone calls or emails, nor did anybody at McSweeney’s. Eggers had initially released a statement with Jonathan Demme that he and the filmmaker had been “in daily contact with Kathy since the incident on July 25,” but it has since been deleted.

We also received this threatening email from attorney David J. Arrick on August 17, 2012:

Dear Mr. Champion:

The attorneys and accountants who initially set up and continually consult with the Zeitoun Foundation have been made aware of your website.

They would like to clarify that there are two components to The Zeitoun Foundation’s charitable purpose: (1) to aid in the rebuilding and social advancement of New Orleans and (2) to promote understanding between people of disparate faiths around the world, with a concentration on relations between the United States of America and the Muslim world. Therefore, not all of the organizations receiving grants from the Zeitoun Foundation are dedicated to Katrina relief projects.

They would further like to clarify that the Zeitoun Foundation does no active fundraising. The Foundation was created to disburse proceeds from the book, Zeitoun, and to bring attention to the exemplary nonprofits to which it awards grants. To date, outside donations have accounted for less than 10% of all monies disbursed by the Foundation. All other funds have come from proceeds from the book.

While it is believed that The Zeitoun Foundation has been as transparent in its operations as comparable non-profit organizations, it does intend to update the Zeitoun Foundation website in the near future, and will also update all filings deemed necessary and appropriate. The website will provide more detailed information about the grant recipients. The grant recipients are outstanding organizations and the website will share more details about the great work that they’re doing.

Sincerely,

David J Arrick
David J. Arrick, Partner
Boas & Boas LLP
101 Montgomery Street, Suite 1250
San Francisco, CA 94104
Telephone: 415-956-4444
Fax: 415-956-2158
E-mail: darrick@boascpas.com
Website: www.boascpas.com

As of November 14th, the Zeitoun Foundation website has not been updated. Nobody is talking. In two corners of the world, there are more important events going on. A man faces charges of attempted first-degree murder, with his wife still frightened for her life. Another man awaits news over whether he’ll win a prestigious book award, but he has nothing to say about the troubled couple who helped him at a pivotal stage in his career. Without them, he may not have made it inside this swank Wall Street ballroom.

11/18/2012 UPDATE: The Times-Picayune‘s John Simerman reported on November 16th that Eggers and McSweeney’s representatives have refused to answer the newspaper’s questions about Zeitoun.

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National Book Awards — Live Coverage

Reluctant Habits will be reporting from the floor of this year’s National Book Awards, which are being held on the evening of November 16th. Managing Editor Edward Champion will be offering strange observations, photographic evidence, and audio clips on this very page as they come in. He will also be tweeting various thoughts falling within the 140 character range. Please keep checking this page and the Twitter page throughout the evening.

3:28 PM: I have just shaved my head, in large part because my stubble was not long enough this year. For this, I apologize. I have donned a beard when attending previous National Book Award ceremonies. Maybe there will be National Book Award beards that I might grow in the future. The most compelling thought I have right now? Never count out any facial hair configuration. Styles change. So do temperaments.

I have printed off my press credentials. This is apparently a requirement for “entry” and I can’t help but marvel that the National Book Foundation is relying upon quaint paper technology as provenance. I’ve been informed by email that there will be numerous celebrities in attendance, including Michael Moore, John Ashbery, Yusef Komunyakaa, Nell Freudenberger, Yiyun L [sic], and John Waters. I am wondering if Yiyun, who is very friendly, a great writer, and someone who once appeared on The Bat Segundo Show, has shortened her name from Yiyun Li to Yiyun L to augment her street cred among troubled Southern California youth. This is quite a sacrifice. I mean, after the Shine/Chime mess, I find it inconceivable that someone could make a typo on a two-letter surname. I can only draw this conclusion.

Because I don’t usually wear neckties, I have been alarmed to discover that some among my modest collection have decomposed within the closet due to disuse. I have found a workaround and will be dressing up very shortly.

6:14 PM: I have arrived at the Cipriani Ballroom, feeling — after my considerable Occupy Wall Street coverage from weeks before — to be weirdly on the other side of what I usually cover. Policemen have told some of the press assembled here that the Kundera meets Umbrellas of Cherbourg vibe outside, whereby well-dressed rich people walk in straight rectilinear ways and numerous policemen stand on the sides of streets, has only been going down for a few days. Which is a hoot for anyone who has noticed the cops for the past few months. I just talked with the main man Harold Augenbraum and asked him if this was the craziest National Book Awards, security-wise, he’s ever dealt with. Not so. “One year I actually hired security,” said Augenbraum. “Someone threatened to disrupt the ceremonies. We hired security guards.” Apparently, some party objected to the specific choices that year — which may have been 2005. Of course, nobody ever did disrupt the ceremonies. And there aren’t security people that I’m aware of inside. Yet I can’t help feeling too comfortable in here — even if I’m wearing a suit, which is not something I entirely associate with comfort.

7:19 PM: I must say that Edith Pearlman is pretty punk rock for 75.

Correspondent: So here’s the question. Do you think that the Award — how much does it matter do you think? Compared to say the act of writing itself?

Pearlman: Oh! Compared to the act of writing, it doesn’t matter at all. I mean, I think writing is what matters most.

Correspondent: So why are you here then?

Pearlman: Because it matters some.

Edith Pearlman (Download MP3)

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7:49 PM: My audio conversation with Mary Gabriel, nonfiction finalist of Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution.

Mary Gabriel (Download MP3)

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8:55 PM: There’s been much talk about Occupy Wall Street at the press table (PW‘s Cal Reed says he’s gone down and will again) and among many of the attendees, but the only person who has mentioned it on stage is Ann Lauterbach. Other than Lauterbach, there hasn’t been a single person willing to address it on stage. And, as I learned in talking with nonfiction finalist Lauren Redniss (Radioactive), even some of the finalists lack the guts to air their views. “I have many thoughts, but I’d rather not comment. Thank you so much,” said Redniss at the close of the following radio interview, as she slunk into the clutches of yet more half-baked talk.

Lauren Redniss(Download MP3)

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The Winners:

Fiction: Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones
Nonfiction: Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
Poetry: Nikky Finney, Head Off and Split
Young Adult: Thanhha Lai, Inside Out & Back Again

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The Bat Segundo Show: Téa Obreht

Téa Obreht appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #421. She is most recently the author of The Tiger’s Wife, winner of the Orange Prize and finalist for the National Book Awards (to be announced on Wednesday: check out Reluctant Habits and our Twitter feed for live coverage from the floor that evening).

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering a future in which writers are trained by Carl Weathers.

Author: Téa Obreht

Subjects Discussed: Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” how much one needs to know about tigers, being a National Geographic nerd, research and laziness, readers who have different takes on a story, clumsiness, musicians who become butchers, precise metaphors within The Tiger’s Wife, having the illusion of knowing what you’re doing, talking in first person plural, storytelling and The Secret, regularly arriving at the wrong formula, the elephant scene, deathless men, finding inspiration at the Syracuse Zoo, why brains need to sit with ideas, working in a faux Balkans world, finding verisimilitude for faraway places within common present-day incidents, sharing earbuds on Walkmen and iPods, immediate points within life that connect you to stories, family members who avoid writers, writing what you know “at the moment,” trigger points, similarities between Underground and The Tiger’s Wife, Emir Kusturica, gypsy film soundtracks, learning English from Disney films, legends particular to Belgrade, the Kalemegdan fortress, film as a greater influence for dialogue than real life, Howard Hawks, bad cinematic trilogies, the Qatsi Trilogy, treating fiction as something fabricated, relationships between truth and fabrication, humor bridging the gap between magic and realism, laughing over awful events, Shoah, The Gulag Archipelago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Master and Margarita, finding a humorous path to the real, Stewart O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying, bonding emotional with a book, whether death is inherently funny, Fawlty Towers, coffee grounds as personal mythology, thick Turkish coffee in the Balkans, parrots that quote poetry, legends that tend to spring up about English Bull Terriers in Belgrade, Kipling’s The Jungle Book vs. the 1967 Disney film, mythological animals, the rosy Disney view, reading from a non-American standpoint, being shocked by Kipling’s imperialism when discovered later in life, the dangers of embedded narrative, academics obliged to find silly interpretations in order to keep their jobs, mythology that is tied to a specific place, learning everything from Disney, American mythology, cowboy hats and immigrant stories, unnecessary suburban symbolism, hostile reviews from women, being confused as a YA novelist, paying attention to reviews, good art and polarizing people, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, critics who see things that the author never intended, standing by work, having doubts about early work, the inevitability of a few clunkers, deleting pages, overexposure and overexplaining, the possibility of Obreht turning into Smeagol if she wins the National Book Award, becoming corrupted by attention, J. Robert Lennon, insulating one’s self from attention, Sunset Boulevard, the importance of humility, defending the pursuit of writing and the need for books in a terrible economy, Richard Powers’s “What Does Fiction Know?”, the Occupy movements, and fiction as a form of help.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I must confess that Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” was in my head on the way over here the entire time. And I have you to blame for that.

Obreht: (laughs) Thank you. I keep hearing it on radios now. Like whenever I do, I get embarrassed.

Correspondent: Really? You get embarrassed? You get shamed?

Obreht: I don’t know why. Because I get really into it. It’s pertinent now. And then I get embarrassed about myself.

Correspondent: Do you get sick of tigers now that you have dwelt upon them quite heavily and you have to constantly talk about them?

Obreht: You know, I don’t think I do. I think it’s just getting more and more entrenched into what I do every day. Every email I send has a tiger picture attached to it that’s pertinent to the conversation.

Correspondent: (laughs) Wow.

Obreht: I’m sure that at aome moment a big break will come and I’ll say, “I never want to see any feline again!” And I’ll kick cats as I go down the street. No, not really. Not really.

Correspondent: (laughs) Violence is welcome on this program.

Obreht: (laughs)

Correspondent: Even hypothetical violence. So you have to become a tiger expert, I presume? Have you been reading up on cats and the like?

Obreht: You know, I studied tigers a little bit for the writing of the book and went and sat in zoos a lot. And I’m a total National Geographic nerd anyway. So it came naturally.

Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about nerdom. National Geographic nerdom.

Obreht: Yay!

Correspondent: How much do you have to know about tigers to know about them? Or do they exist within the wonderful theater of the mind? What’s up?

Obreht: I’m a big believer in the theater of the mind. Especially when you’re dealing with fiction. I mean, there’s only so much you can know. And then there’s only so much of what you know that you can transmit before it begins to be clinical. So I think research, while it helps, can sometimes destroy you. And I was very happy to take a little bit of what I knew and run with that and let a thousand imaginations bloom about tigers.

Correspondent: Wow. So you’ve learned this fairly early on. A lot of writers have to wait decades before they realize sometimes, “You know, maybe I shouldn’t read every book on a subject.” You’ve actually managed to avoid that from the get-go. To what do you attribute this extra wisdom?

Obreht: Laziness. (laughs)

Correspondent: Laziness? Oh, I see. I see. Practical temperament concerns. (laughs)

Obrhet: No. I think I’m always terrified — I think a lot of students that I have had at Cornell have been terrified of not making their intentions known in their writing or not having something clear in their writing. I’ve always been terrified of the exact opposite. I’ve always been afraid of letting too much be known too quickly or hitting the reader over the head with something. Because I know that used to be one of my flaws. So I’m so overly cautious about it that I think that it sometimes cripples me. I think that there are some things that I could research a little more heavily or whatever I write about them.

Correspondent: Being too explicit about stuff. Like. Such as?

Obreht: Such as? I don’t know. I think that such as a particular kind of character interaction or…

Correspondent: Such as?

Obreht: Such as — well, actually I’m thinking about my short story — for some reason I can’t think of an example from the book, but my short story, “The Laugh” — there’s this tension between the two main characters. One is the husband of a recently deceased woman. And the other is his best friend, but also someone who was interested in the deceased wife. And I was terrified of laying this out too quickly and immediately and explicitly at the beginning of the story. Because it would totally break the tension. And so in an early — in the first five drafts of the story, it wasn’t clear at all. And people were like, “Why is this happening?” And I was like, “Well, he likes her! Or used to and now she’s dead.” So, for me, it’s always this holding back and then trying to ease into being okay with the information being there.

Correspondent: Is this one of the chief concerns when you’re going through this endless rewriting and endless revising? To find that tonal balance that really strikes between what the reader needs to know and what the reader needs to infer?

Obreht: Absolutely. And that’s one of the great endeavors of the short story — this negotiation between the reader and the writer and how that information is being transferred. And you can transfer information in a way where the reader knows. Like the implication is already there and all you have to do is trigger it with that one word for the reader’s neural pathways to open up in that particular direction. And it’s so much fun.

Correspondent: You sound like a drug dealer. Dopamine hits or something. (laughs)

Obreht: I do use a lot of caffeine! (laughs) But as a reader, I enjoy seeing how that happens. You know, how I came to the same conclusion as anther reader. That was one of the great exercises of workshop. How did you get to this place with this story? And I got to a completely different place? Or how did we arrive at the same place? Where was the information that led us both there? I love that as a reader. So I enjoy that as a writer as well.

Correspondent: But if you’re constantly revising to get that precision, how do you keep yourself in surprise? Because that, of course, is very important to maintain the life of a story.

Obreht: Oh, that just comes normally. Because I have no idea what I’m doing! (laughs)

Correspondent: Yeah. The big thing that nobody really understands. That writers really don’t know what they’re doing often.

Obreht: Yeah. Exactly. You know, you stumble into things. And you’ll be 75% of the way through something and suddenly it’s like, “Oh, I changed my mind! Actually, this is going to happen because it feels more normal, more natural.” Then you have to backtrack and shift everything. (flourishes with considerable exuberance, nearly knocking an object over)

Correspondent: (reflexes kicking in, saves object from falling off table) Almost knock things over.

Obreht: I’m gesticulating here!

Correspondent: No, no, no. If we knock something over, it will make this conversation 300% better.

Obreht: That’s awesome.

Correspondent: It’s already going very well.

The Bat Segundo Show #421: Téa Obreht (Download MP3)

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Laura Miller’s Black Helicopters

Last Wednesday, Laura Miller offered another typically incoherent tirade, perhaps demonstrating some closet desire to become the Maureen Dowd of the literary world. Her column attempted to stir up controversy over the apparent problem that this year’s fiction finalists for the National Book Award were, with the exception of Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, composed of “low-profile and/or small press offerings.” Failing to comprehend that awards often represent opportunities for readers of all stripes to discover new titles, and lacking anything even approximating facts, Miller resorted instead to the conspiracy theories that one expects from undergraduates passing a pipe in a dorm room to stave off boredom. She put on her tin foil hat, detecting “the sense that the fiction jury is locked in a frustrating impasse with the press and the public” and not understanding that the National Book Award judges are too busy reading hundreds of books to worry about what their decisions will mean with “the press and the public.”

Miller writes that the press “expresses bafflement” when some obscure writer wins, but fails to cite any examples. Sure, there was some minor controversy one year over the five fiction finalists all being women from New York. But that was seven years ago. Last year, Jaimy Gordon certainly surprised the audience by winning the National Book Award over such literary bigwigs as Peter Carey and Nicole Krauss. But what specifically is Miller referring to? The New York Times merely reported it as “a surprise pick,” which was accurate reporting. Much as Maureen Dowd once got a ridiculous column out of some mythical meeting between two senators, Miller seems to be implying some similar clink of glasses between NBA judges and the press. But as someone who has covered the National Book Awards multiple times, and who hasn’t been able to get anything from the judges (despite a combination of charm and silly questions), I can confidently report that Miller doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

Miller’s column is little more than irresponsible speculation. It belongs in a neighborhood circular, preferably distributed by lunatics off a moving truck in the middle of nowhere, not a distinguished online magazine. Even though she’s clearly unfamiliar with “whatever policy each panel of judges embraces,” Miller’s ignorance certainly doesn’t prevent her from engaging in relentlessly uninformed speculation. Miller claims that “the impression has arisen that already-successful titles are automatically sidelined in favor of books that the judges feel deserve an extra boost of attention.” But when we refer to two recent judges who were kind enough to share their National Book Award experiences, Miller’s deranged theories don’t add up. In 2006, judge Marianne Wiggins wrote an essay for the Los Angeles Times outlining the process:

In our first conference call, we began to try to define what we were looking for. A “national” book? A work of fiction that spoke to the “American” character? Judge No. 1 wanted “readability,” and No. 5 wanted “a sense of discovery.” I just wanted writing that would set my hair on fire.

We see with Wiggins a variety of motivations. But neither “readability” nor “a sense of discovery” fits into the hypothetical sidelining of successful titles.

More recently, Victor LaValle wrote a piece for Publishers Weekly responding to Miller’s claims: “If such a thing ever happened then the NBA are really nefarious because they wiped my memory banks clean.”

If Miller had taken the time to consult Wiggins’s essay or contacted any of the judges, then she would not have written such an intellectually bankrupt column. She certainly would not have leaped to the paralogic contained in the unintentionally hilarious paragraphs that follow, whereby “the larger reading public has also proven recalcitrant” (really?) and even has the effrontery to dictate the qualities that “don’t matter much to nonprofessional readers or even put them off.”

I’d like to inform Ms. Miller that this outsider was so intrigued by Jaimy Gordon and Paul Harding’s respective award-winning books that he invited both authors to discuss their books at length on The Bat Segundo Show. (Both graciously accepted. You can listen to my conversation with Gordon or Paul Harding, if you like.) I would like to think that Ms. Gordon and Mr. Harding would have found their way onto the program eventually. But it was the awards that allowed resources, permitting these two writers to make their way to New York and talk with me. I don’t especially care how obscure or popular any writer is. And I also don’t especially care whether a book is “so obscure as to be virtually invisible.” I only care if the book is interesting. What Miller doesn’t seem to get is that if people like a book, then they are not going to stay silent about it. To the extent that awards can encourage such enthusiasm, I don’t really see what the problem is. Unless you are someone who hates books or, like Miller, you hate any independent mind or mechanism offering an alternative to your unadventurous, huckster-friendly sensibility. As Dan Green has noted, “by now it’s clear that Laura Miller has staked her claim to critical influence on a defense of ‘ordinary’ readers against fancy writers who write too much and that she’ll stick to that story, however misguided, lest her standing as a critic to be heeded is threatened.”

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The 2010 National Book Awards

4:10 PM: I just got back from interviewing a National Book Awards nominee for a future installment of The Bat Segundo Show. Now I have about an hour to shave the five days of stubble off my face and the top of my skull and find something nice to wear before hitting Wall Street. At least three friends have informed me that adopting a clean-shaven approach is the only way that the National Book Foundation will let me penetrate the inner sanctum, although this esteemed organization has been nice enough to grant me (perhaps unwisely) press credentials. I sat out the National Book Awards last year. Ended up getting sucked in through Twitter. People thought I was there. And I guess it comes down to this. Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in. Every November, I’m the Regis Philbin of the literary scene. Or maybe the Fred Willard.

This year, there will be two places to find me: this page and my Twitter account. I have just eaten a very large burrito to ensure that I will have a ridiculous amount of energy for the floor. If someone gives me drinks, I’m sure there will be additional craziness. Charging the batteries for my sound equipment. Charging the netbook. Charging the jet black fire of my soul.

6:29 PM: There was a fashion emergency at Atlantic Mall that required the swift purchase of a shirt after the other one decided to commit a unique self-immolation. But I am now ensconced at the press table. Cal Reid from Publishers Weekly is to my left. There is a thick rope separating the press area from the fancy tables. The rope is not the kind you use for jumping, nor for hanging a man. Although I suspect that if some author gets better tonight, there’s always the prospect for eccentric violence. You don’t see kids playing with this kind of rope. It’s the kind of rope that tells a man that he’s not so good to sip gimlets or snort blow. I don’t anticipate seeing gimlets and blow tonight. But maybe there will be some debauchery in the restrooms or off-premises. Will investigate if there’s time.

7:06 PM: Fiction judge Samuel R. Delany and nonfiction judge Jennifer Michael Hecht are both staying mum about whether there were any heated deliberations or exclusions. Delany did not venture an opinion to me in relation to Franzen’s Freedom, which, rather notoriously, was kept off the list. Hecht told me that the judges weren’t allowed to attend last night’s readings. And while, like Delany, she stayed mum on the politics, she did tell me that the process was surprisingly civil. The one thing they both agreed upon: lots of reading.

7:22 PM: Audio interview with Samuel R. Delaney.

National Book Awards 2010 — Samuel Delany (Download MP3)

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7:34 PM: Audio interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht (nonfiction judge).

National Book Awards 2010 — Jennifer Michael Hecht (Download MP3)

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7:41 PM: Audio interview with Patti Smith.

National Book Awards 2010 — Patti Smith (Download MP3)

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8:12 PM: Andy Borowitz is a perfectly respectable fifth-rate Vegas entertainer. I keep looking around for relatives in Hawaiian shirts. There was a very lame act about Best Subtitle in a book. The material here is, well, can you trust a guy who can’t tie his bowtie? Elmo has just shown up. That should tell you everything.

8:19 PM: Have just asked two other press people about this, but it is apparently important enough for me to report that Elmo is voiced by a black man.

8:41 PM: Tom Wolfe is presently delivering one of the most rambling speeches I have ever heard. And that includes the crazy shit my great grandmother said after a stroke.

8:52 PM: I’ve timed Tom Wolfe’s long-winded speech at around 25 minutes. People are now relieved to be eating dinner.

9:15 PM: Yes, it’s true. People are still eating dinner. No awards yet. Now I’ve covered a few of these National Book Awards ceremonies and I can tell you this is par for the course. The journalists are now talking with each other. I think that, aside from the award announcements, I will save my energies for the tweets.

9:44 PM: The Young People’s Literature Award goes to Kathryn Erskine’s Mockingbird (Philomel).

9:50 PM: The Poetry Award “by unanimous vote” goes to Terrance Hayes’s Lighthead (Penguin).

9:59 PM: Patti Smith wins Nonfiction! In her speech: “There is nothing more beautiful in our material world than the book.”

10:05 PM: In a surprise victory, Jaimy Gordon takes the Fiction Award for Lord of Misrule.

White Men Sweep 2009 National Book Awards

Tonight, the National Book Awards gave every major award to a white man, demonstrating that snubbing women writers isn’t limited to Publishers Weekly. Even the honorary awards were given to Dave Eggers and Gore Vidal, proving that even in the 21st century, white men are still capable of winning everything.

The only woman who won an award was Flannery O’Connor for Best of the National Book Awards Fiction. Alas, she’s been dead for over forty-five years.

Here are the winners:

FICTION: Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (Random House)

NONFICTION: T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Alfred A. Knopf)

POETRY: Keith Waldrop, Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy (University of California Press)

YOUNG PEOPLE’S LITERATURE: Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

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The Bat Segundo Show: 2008 National Book Awards

Our reports from the National Book Awards previously appeared in piecemeal on these pages, and have also appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #252.

So far as we know, the National Book Awards has not authored anything aside from programs and informational pamphlets. The people that Our Young, Roving Correspondent talked with on that fateful night, however, have authored a few books. Or at least, this is what they have told us.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Deeply suspicious of Harold Augenbraum.

Authors: Joan Wickersham, Annette Gordon-Reed, Salvatore Scibona, Mark Doty, Candace Bushnell, and Richard Howard.

Subjects Discussed: The difficulties of writing a memoir in straight chronological order, the paradox of suicide, having a handrail to guide you through the writing of a book, the Hemmings family, endnotes, the perils of plunging into research, working on a book for nine years, narrative arcs, attempts by finalists to describe a book in 100 words, planning a book for ten years, writing and throwing things away, typewriters and distractions, mixing up Cs and Ds, the difficulties of selecting poetry for a volume, wrestling with Walt Whitman, why Candace Bushnell reads what she reads, attempting to get an answer on how one exudes glamor at the National Book Awards, and how long it takes Richard Howard to write a poem.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: How are you wrestling with Whitman exactly?

Doty: Well, I want to think about the common ground that I share with Whitman. A real interest in the relationship between the individual — the single self — to the community. Whitman is always trying to figure out where the margins of himself are, and often he feels like he doesn’t have any. That’s been an obsession of mine too. He’s a person who was so interested in affirming the body, and the pleasures of sex and of physical life. And at the same time, he was a person who was absolutely obsessed with mortality and the end of physical life. So those are all things that matter to me. And I love the way that he really thought his poems could change the world.

* * *

Correspondent: And you’re here for the National Book Awards specifically in what capacity? To exude glamor or what?

Bushnell: To celebrate books. This is the business that I’m in. Publishing. I’ve written five novels. And this is about publishing. So it’s always a treat for writers to come out and see other writers.

BSS #252: 2008 National book Awards (Download MP3)

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Fiction Award

And the winner is Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country.

An interminable preliminary speech from Gail Godwin…..

And then….

Matthiessen’s speech: He’s smiling as he walks up the stage, holding up his award, looking at Gail, and then addressing the audience. “Well, needless to say, I’m very happy and honored to have this National Book Award.” He did not prepare a speech. Thanks thanks thanks. “I’ve had a hard time over the years persuading people that fiction was my natural thing, not nonfiction.” Bringing up Viking, being sued by the FBI. “I also want to say how much I’ve enjoyed much too briefly my fellow nominees.” “Years ago, I was nominated for the fiction award for a novel called At Play in the Fields of the Lord. And it didn’t win.” “I’m back! And other writers will be back too. I just hope it doesn’t take thirty-three years.”

Nonfiction Award

And the winner is Annette Gordon Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello.

Reed’s speech: Tonight is actually her birthday. She lived too much in the 18th century. Thanks to Robert Wile (editor at Norton). Couldn’t stop researching and had to write. “I can’t say what a wonderful November this has been.” “We’re on a great journey now and I look forward to the years to come.”

Poetry Award

And the winner is Mark Doty’s Fire to Fire.

Doty’s speech: “Robert is right. This is really good baloney.” Very nervous. “I am glad to be alive in a time when poems like [my finalists] are written.” Shoutout to Terry, editor at HarperCollins. Shoutout to the late Robert Jones, who brought Doty to Harper. Recently married his partner. “It is very plain that we are on the path to equality for all Americans, and that nothing is going to turn us back.”

Young People’s Literature Award

And the winner is Judy Blundell’s What I Saw and How I Lied.

Blundell’s speech: Always a bad idea to follow Daniel Handler. “Most of you don’t know me, but I’ve probably worked for many of the houses in this room tonight.” “This is the first book I put my name on. When I started in publishing, I was a hapless and very underconfident person. Not much has changed, but I went in the back door of publishing as a writer for hire.” She worked in genre joyfully, because she loved those books. Children don’t discriminate and categorize. “You can develop a type of writer’s amnesia. Not that you’ve lost your present, and your past, but your future.” Her 48th book with her editor. Thanks to David (her editor) for giving me back my voice. (She has not thanked her agent. Does she have one?)

How Much Was “Housekeeping” Edited?

While wandering around the ballroom in search of quotes (and observing Leon Neyfakh’s fine method of collecting quotes from people while standing near the restrooms), I ran into Pat Strachan, who had edited Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I remain convinced that Robinson can win tonight. But Strachan expressed a few doubts. In fact, a number of people I’ve talked with tonight seem to doubt that Robinson can win. Of course, we’ll know soon enough in the next hour.

In any event, being a bit of a Robinson geek, I had to ask Strachan about how exactly she edited Housekeeping. She told me that the manuscript was more or less as is, and that there were minor changes. “What kind of changes?” I asked. Not much apparently. Just a few words for clarification.

Some authors are just that good.

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2008 National Book Awards Podcast #6: Richard Howard

(This podcast is part of our 2008 National Book Awards coverage. Keep checking this category for details.)

Who is the Correspondent Talking With? Richard Howard

What’s Going On? In a noisy tableau, our young, roving correspondent hopes to get some answers about the craft of poetry from Richard Howard.

National Book Awards Podcast #6: Richard Howard (Download MP3)

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Spouse of a Nominee

Outside the ballroom.

“Are you nervous?”

“Actually, I’m here because of my wife.”

“Moral support then?”

“You could call it that.”

“Was it a big surprise for her to be nominated?”

“Well, actually she had the support of many librarians.”

“So she expected it.”

“It was an honor for her to be nominated.”

“And how about you? Are you holding up okay?”

“It’s getting cold. I have to go back inside.”

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2008 National Book Awards Podcast #5: Candace Bushnell

(This podcast is part of our 2008 National Book Awards coverage. Keep checking this category for details.)

Who is the Correspondent Talking With? Candace Bushnell

What’s Going On? Attempting to ascertain precisely why Ms. Bushnell is here, but she is more fond of thanking your young, roving correspondent, rather than answering his questions.

National Book Awards Podcast #5: Candace Bushnell (Download MP3)

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2008 National Book Awards Podcast #4: Mark Doty

(This podcast is part of our 2008 National Book Awards coverage. Keep checking this category for details.)

Who is the Correspondent Talking With? Mark Doty

What’s Going On? So here’s the deal. Mr. Doty here has arranged a considerable amount of poetry together. But have you ever stopped to consider just how it was put together. Furthermore, there is a good deal of talk here about Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and the degree to which poets should revere Mr. Whitman. Mr. Doty was a good sport during this interview, and we hope to revisit his work at some less rushed point in the future.

National Book Awards Podcast #4: Mark Doty (Download MP3)

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2008 National Book Awards Podcast #3: Salvatore Scibona

(This podcast is part of our 2008 National Book Awards coverage. Keep checking this category for details.)

Who is the Correspondent Talking With? Salvatore Scibona

What’s Going On? Talk of writing novels over the course of ten years, the advantages of writing on typewriters, and other tomfoolery.

National Book Awards Podcast #3: Salvatore Scibona (Download MP3)

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2008 National Book Awards Podcast #2: Annette Gordon Reed

(This podcast is part of our 2008 National Book Awards coverage. Keep checking this category for details.)

Who is the Correspondent Talking With? Annette Gordon Reed

What’s Going On? Talk about the Hemmings.

National Book Awards Podcast #2: Annette Gordon Reed (Download MP3)

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2008 National Book Awards Podcast #1: Joan Wickersham

(This podcast is part of our 2008 National Book Awards coverage. Keep checking this category for details.)

Who is the Correspondent Talking With? Joan Wickersham

What’s Going On? Talk about Wickersham’s book, The Suicide Index, and how disorderly emotions can’t always be arranged in an orderly manner.

National Book Awards Podcast #1: Joan Wickersham (Download MP3)

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National Book Awards Dispatch #1

I am now situated in the press section of the Cipriani Ballroom. Galleycat’s Jason Boog is here, and we are urging him to get his journalistic party started. There are numerous round tables, which one expects from a ballroom, and plentiful waiters ready to kick some culinary ass. But we have not yet located any authors. It is still early. Harold Augenbraum did not recognize me — presumably because I spent a portion of the afternoon with a pair of clippers. There are two friendly reporters here from Publishers Weekly: Lynn Adriani and Craig Teicher. Other journalists are grumbling about cocktails. I have just urged another journalist that there will be pugilism should his equipment be stolen by an interloper.

Jason Boog is no longer here. But we have reason to believe that he will return. We have reason to believe that there will be authors. So far, we have been proved wrong.

Jason Boog’s first words are, “It was a really eerie feeling to walk right past Wall Street on this day into this opulence.”

Again, the National Book Awards

During the past two days, there have been sparse entries on these pages. There are reasons for this: a few deadlines met, a few interviews conducted (one very journalistic, the other involving two people with funny brains approaching strange nexuses, or, nexii, as the interviewee playfully insisted on), some quiet stabs at the enormous humanistic thing that I am trying to finish before January 20th, and serious and constructive thinking about this website’s future aligned with the dawning reality that newspapers and magazines are dying, as jobs also fall off the board. I do not know if one can be simultaneously optimistic and grim, and I can report nothing in the way of mood swings here. If I had to choose one, it would be the former. But I have long claimed to be an optimistic realist — someone who maintains a basic faith in the overall goodness of people, while likewise being very well aware of our darkest impulses. And perhaps this yin-yang nestling in my head has caused me to be slower when it comes to some responses, while quick on the draw as ever with others. For this, I apologize. I shall try and be better.

If this ruminative dilemma has spawned a modest slowdown here, well, then I’ll certainly be making up for it on Wednesday night (wow, tonight?), where I shall be dutifully reporting from the press section at the National Book Awards, sticking my tongue out should journalistic nemeses bug me, and giving you something close to the strange and improvised coverage that was provided here last year. My laptop has grown rattier and I have deliberately maintained a small cake of dust upon the screen to distinguish myself from my flashier colleagues. There will be blog entries, tweets, and podcasts. And I will do my best to hook literary people together. I have no idea what will come of these experiments, but I am committed to fun. The mad rush of National Book Awards reporting should begin sometime around 6:00 PM EST.

National Book Award Finalists Announced

Now this is a very intriguing list.

Fiction

Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project (Riverhead)
Rachel Kushner, Telex from Cuba (Scribner)
Peter Matthiessen, Shadow Country (Modern Library)
Marilynne Robinson, Home (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Salvatore Scibona, The End (Graywolf Press)

Nonfiction

Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Alfred A. Knopf)
Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W.W. Norton & Company)
Jane Mayer, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (Doubleday)
Jim Sheeler, Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives (Penguin)
Joan Wickersham, The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order (Harcourt)

Poetry

Frank Bidart, Watching the Spring Festival (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Mark Doty, Fire to Fire: New and Collected Poems (HarperCollins)
Reginald Gibbons, Creatures of a Day (Louisiana State University Press)
Richard Howard, Without Saying (Turtle Point Press)
Patricia Smith, Blood Dazzler (Coffee House Press)

Young People’s Literature

Laurie Halse Anderson, Chains (Simon & Schuster)
Kathi Appelt, The Underneath (Atheneum)
Judy Blundell, What I Saw and How I Lied (Scholastic)
E. Lockhart, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (Hyperion)
Tim Tharp, The Spectacular Now (Alfred A. Knopf)

And You Thought Bloggers Were the Unprofessional Ones

Leon Neyfakh: “Chuck Shelton, the editor of the publishing trade publication Kirkus, came over to the table to say hello to Mr. Karp. Mr. Shelton greeted Mr. Hitchens, whom he said he knew from cocktail parties. Shortly thereafter, according to Mr. Shelton, he was inexplicably touching Mr. Hitchens’ penis and rubbing his balls.”

Whether Mr. Shelton paid for the privilege is unknown. I can only presume that this was merely an unprofessional gesture.

Cindy Lee Johnson

Denis Johnson’s wife is now up. She is assuring us that Johnson “is on assignment. Legitimate.” She is now reading an acceptance speech.

“Naturally, I’m very grateful to the National Book Foundation for this award and I’m very sorry to miss this one chance to dress up in a tuxedo.”

“And Cindy, who have I forgotten? To all the judges who voted for Tree of Smoke, thank you so much.”

“I’d like to thank God.”

That’s pretty funny — that last line.