And the Fiction Winner Is…

The presenter this year is Francine Prose, also the chair of the judges.

Lebowitz said that, given the laundry list of Prose’s achievements, she “has the envy of Joyce Carol Oates.”

She is boasting about what a pleasure it was to read the books. She talked every few weeks with her fellow panelists. “I often thought this was how writers talk about books. And I often thought that I wish everybody talked about books this year.” She is forced to name these authors alphabetically.

And the fiction winner is Denis Johnson!

Tim Weiner Speech

He has a deep Brooklyn accent. He means business. He is thanking a lot of people.

Above all, Phyllis Grann — “a great editor, a force of nature.” The spotlight is on her.

“These people, ladies and gentleman, turned my finished manuscript into a hardcover books in three weeks.”


“One of the great things about being a newspaper reporter is that you get paid to get an education.”

He tried to set out his record in “simple declarative sentences.”

Nonfiction Award

David Shields is presenting the Nonfiction Award.

Shields is walking slowly up to the stage. He does want to keep us in suspense. Particularly after Hass’s protracted speech. And he is READ-ING THE BOOK TIT-LES SO SLOW-LY. We’ve been here for four hours. Come on, dude. Will it be Hitch?

“How did the panel choose these five books? We got along famously for the first several months. We made the usual jokes about how we could make it up to our respective mail carriers.” (He’s not getting laughs. And now he’s blundered another joke — “under the weight” — uh.) And the bland manner he puts into “When it came to crunch time….” Okay, now I’m longing for Hass to get on the stage again.

“To quote the poet, writing is fighting.” Which poet? “And the book that we judge to matter the most, that we thought mattered the most…”

Doesn’t this man realize that there are reporters here on deadline?

But the nonfiction winner is Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.

[12/30/07 UPDATE: A reader writes in to inform me that David Shields has a stutter and that his slow-speaking style came about because of this.]

Robert Haas Speech

He quoted Emily Dickinson, “Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne’er succeed.”

“Poems have always been rich and plangent.”

He is being very kind towards his fellow nominees, as everybody else is. Indeed, he is spending much of his speech talking about “learning from them.”

“We’ve labored together to make poems that offer new shapes of feeling, new shapes of perception, and to say something about what it’s like to be alive at a given time.”

Apparently, his best friend in high school was Joan Didion’s cousin. “I have a cousin who wants to be a writer. She got a job with a magazine called Vogue.” “What does Vogue mean?” asked the young Haas. “It’s French for ‘fog.'”

Poetry Finalist`

Fran Lebowitz: “One down, three to go.”

Charles Simic is now presenting. “This is an amazing time in American poetry, as we found out reading these books. A lot of good poems have been written and published. At least ten to fifteen books would have been on our short list of finalists.”

There is, incidentally, a Powerpoint presentation on the screen which blips up all the book covers for each category.

But the winner is Robert Hass’s Time and Materials.

Alexie Speech

“Well, I obviously should have been writing YA all along.”

Nervous, truly awe-struck.

The first book he remembered was Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day Board Book. He was struck by the gorgeous isolation. His first creative writing teacher handed him a Native American volume. He had never read a book by another Native American before. “I knew right then at that moment when I read that line that I wanted to be a writer. And it’s been a gorgeous and magic and terrifying twenty years since then. And now I stand before you grateful.”

He thanked his editor Jennifer Brown, “even though I could be an arrogant bastard.”

A Report from Levi Asher

It’s halftime at the National Book Awards, and here’s the score:

Funniest speaker: Fran Lebowitz
Speaker who most reminds me of Toby from “The Office”: Michael Cunningham
Pretty Interesting: Terry Gross
Okay, I’m sure she’s a nice person but I still can’t agree she’s a genius: Joan Didion

The awards will follow! Ed wants blog back. Later.

Terry Gross

“Gee, you know, I enjoy hearing Ira Glass talk about anything. But hearing him talk about me? That’s absolutely thrilling!”

Terry Gross is not planning on improvising. So good on her for knowing her limitations. She has not yet said FREEEEEEEEEEEEEESHHHH AIRRRRR!

“I never dreamed that I would be honored at the National Book Awards, and without even having to write a book.”

“Book interviews can be pretty perplexing. I once met a political correspondent who stormed out when I asked him a question that wasn’t in the book.” By contrast, an actor who wrote a book wouldn’t answer questions because the answers were already in his book.

“Why do I love talking to writers? Well, because non-fiction writers tell us things we don’t ever know.”


She’s boasting now about J.T. Leroy’s interview being used as court evidence.

“Fiction allows a novelist to get at the truth.”

Really? I did not know that.

Ira Glass

Lebowitz’s response to Didion’s speech: “pretty funny.”

Ira Glass is now presenting. They don’t applaud for Ira in quite the same way that they do for Didion. But it could be because Ira is wearing all black.


First 9/11 reference of the night! What the hell do 9/11 hijackers have to do with Terry Gross? Oh, he’s rambling on about a 9/11 interview. “And then this interview goes incredibly barebone, when this writer confesses — that when he started reading — that, uh, yeah this was an amazing interview. Not just the strippers. The flying planes in the building.”

Ira, this is not your therapist’s office. You are presenting an award. You are not accepting an award.

“It was great radio, of course.”

Of course.

Joan Didion

Didion is now on stage. A lengthy applause. And now a standing ovation.

Didion is very small, as everybody has often reported.

“I didn’t start writing to get a lifetime achievement award. In fact, it was pretty much the last thing on my mind.”

Words on “Self-Respect” written in 1961 in Vogue. A real writer at Vogue at that time was “pretty much anyone who wasn’t on staff.” Lengthy stuff about San Bernardino. Yes, the woman can write, but to reproduce this speech is to possibly bore you readers. Didion-is-read-ing-like-this-in-a-flat-line-voice.

“Overwhelming impulse. I need to go back to the airport. So each of these pieces was a job, a craft. But each of these pieces were an exercise in learning how to live.”

Aha, the first Mailer mention of the night! “There was someone who really truly knew what writing was for.”

Michael Cunningham: He Wrote “The Hours” and He Wants You to Worship Him

Michael Cunningham — the author of The Hours — is now up to present the Lifetime Achievement Award. He is accompanied by a young gentleman who looks like a Williamsburg hipster. I presume he is the “assistant.”

Cunningham: A long pause, then a sigh. He is nervous and then not so. What’s that? An audience! The literary establishment at my beck and call! Talking about a long trip to Los Angeles. He is emphasizing words like “frighteningly” and looking more than a bit pompous. The air that escapes from his lungs does so with a stunning regularity. This is a windbag that came from the factory. If Didion kicks Cunningham in the ass when she gets the award, I will have nothing but good words to say of her from now on. The likelihood of this happening is nil, seeing as how Didion avoided an interview from videographer Jason Boog.

One thing’s for sure: I don’t believe that he loves Didion as much as he says he does.

The Non-Winners

Lebowitz is now holding a sixty-page list containing the non-winners since 1950. She points out that A Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger is a “non-winner.” Beloved by Toni Morrison also lost. “She didn’t go to New Hampshire. In fact, she’s here tonight. (applause) And if were to ask me, she looks kind of expectant.”

Lebowitz’s barbs are quite funny (at our table, Marydell even tittered!), but it is too clear that she is reading from the paper.

The Ceremony Has Started

I will have more podcasts later, but Fran Lebowitz has taken the stage. She is mentioning many things about the writer strikes and, contrary to her thoughts expressed to me on the podcast interview about winging it, she’s reading from a piece of paper.

Of reruns replacing first-run television shows: “Apparently, there are some people who observe the difference.”

“So in the generous spirit that I know exists in this room, if there are people at your table who you cannot place, please extend a warm welcome to the Bailey family from Toronto, who couldn’t get in.”

“It was rumored that illegal immigrants were given library cards.”

This is light humor, but she has the crowd downstairs laughing.

“There are four categories, yet there are twenty finalists. Therefore, there will be four winners and sixteen non-winners. I am happy to call them non-winners, but I must tell you that of all the phrases that bug me, the oft-repeated ‘win-win’ that bugs me. We know there’s no such thing as ‘win-win,’ because it’s often spoken by the winner-winner. There is such a thing as lose-lose, and that’s what is known as life-life. And there has in one case been lose-win, which was known as Bush v. Gore.”