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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.

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9 Comments

  1. From the point of the 8:12 and 8:19 Borowitz and Elmo reports I say, bah! I’m not tickled. (Are you sure you know which one is the puppet?) Although you might have gleaned I was off you after your nasty Paul Simon twitter comment and my riposte a little while back, so far so good on this live blogging you are currently engaged in. I guess I can’t quit you. And I say that in a strictly platonic/litblogger fan way.

  2. Andy Borowitz—fifth rate in Vegas—really? I thought this line from his “Best Plagiarized Lines from Bush’s Book: The Decider Becomes the Rewriter” column was pretty darned funny:

    “My momma always said life was like a jar of fetus.”

    Re: the “surprise!” win of Lord of Misrule, so much to say. This from a Guardian article the other day about Jaimy Gordon’s nomination:

    *Her sudden change of fortunes, Gordon said, is fitting.

    “What’s really richly ironic is this book is exactly about that,” she said. “It’s about, as I say, trying to figure out what the shape of your luck on Earth is and, one way or another, come to terms with that.”*

    What’s always astonishing to me is the credulity with which authors manage to persuade themselves that their winning Literary Fiction book product did anything other than completely advance ideology’s agenda.

    Irony? I think not, Jaimy. Contemplating one’s individual “luck on Earth” instead of, let’s say, coming to terms with how the many have been disadvantaged at every turn is yet another useful diversion serving Power. And fueling the long-shot hopes of all those nobly-struggling writers–especially the polite, boozhee, White, educated, rule-abiding ones–and giving them a scrap of a reason to “stay in the game,” and worse, to encourage others (innocent young people) to get in it, keeps the whole casino bursting if not with life, with noise, buzz, and oh-my-God, Tom Wolfe!

    Does Gordon really believe in her heart-of-hearts that her reputation as anything other than a belleteristic corporate tool is now secure? Ditto for the sad-eyed Paul Harding (at least he has the good grace to appear ashamed of himself—he’ll go far!). While no doubt her book is packed with all kinds of liveliness, this pick, whatever else it is, is total win-win for the overlords of the industry.

    In other news, is that shockingly loud ca-ching ca-ching sound one hears resounding throughout the isle of Manahatta the sound of the tilting Monopoly board as Harlem’s remaining real estate fortune is unceremoniously dumped into Michael Bloomberg’s triumphant pockets in the latest toe-tapping uptown revue—“The Wrong Place At The Wrong Time:The Charlie Rangel Shakedown”?

  3. Sentiments noted, Frances. And yet…

    Patti Smith won. Surely, this is a good thing.

  4. Do you think so, Ed? I love Patti Smith’s music and spirit. But to the extent that she’s now voluntarily serving as gloss for the cruel and ever-crueler status-quo, she diminishes herself in my beautiful book. Anyway, I’m glad you took the time to shave. I like either clean-shaven or full-out beards, but that walking a line between groomed and wild is hard to achieve, rarely successfully pulled off in my aesthetic experience.

  5. Frances: Patti Smith didn’t write that book for the money. You weren’t there to see her speech, but she was genuinely moved and humbled to win the award. When I say that last night was a night for book lovers, I’m not kidding. Some good literary folks (many not decked out at all) showed up to the afterparty, a joint was passed on the dance floor, and it was really just a good time, with little of the nightmarish Wall Street trappings that were there in 2008 (and that caused me to skip out last year). I understand your understandable complaints about commercialism. But seriously, you’re targeting the wrong folks here.

    Were I in a more venomous disposition, I’d remark upon the rubelike Emily Gould wannabe social climber from NPR, who was about as pleasant as a yapping Powerpoint presenter who hadn’t been fed her Kibbles and Bits. But you know, let the self-important learn a harsh lesson when they find themselves on self-invented islands in a few years.

    Live and let live, you know what I’m saying?

  6. Oh good, a tussle. Patti Smith is awesome. No argument there. But! (I have a lunch guest arriving. Rebuttal anon.)

  7. Now that I have been personally well-fed and my own belly has been well-filled with healthy delicious food, I will say this…

    True I was not at the NBA dinner. But, Ed, you were not at the Brecht Society awards dinner the night previous where Bhairavi Desai was honored for her role in organizing the Taxi Workers Alliance, a huge success story of a workers’ collective that writers would be geniuses to have the humility to emulate. Their watchwords are: Justice, Respect, Rights, Dignity. I know, crazy to think about writers wanting that for each other.

    But with all of its successes, NYTWA is about to face a crisis. Bhairavi reported that the taxi bosses are now pushing a plan for further daily rent increases, the details of which she hopes to post on their website before the end of the week. If I heard her correctly, I believe she said that the bosses want to extract a daily rental rate of $275. Though the Alliance will need support, she is guardedly optimistic about the drivers’ ability to collectively resist the worst effects of the attack on their livelihoods; but it is a sign of the times, the triumphalism of Capital in Bloomberg’s NYC, Inc., that such a monstrous proposal could even be committed to paper.

    Corporate publishing has done such a marvelous job of cowing writers from even talking seriously about organizing by tossing a few bones of tricked-out prestige to their authors in the form of occasional lunches, publishing parties, author tours, and insider awards, some of them replete with goofy medals and tacky ribbons (all of which they can write off under the pro-corporatist U.S. tax code, and which, if you think about it, primarily benefit them), that Bloomberg has promoted one of its executives to finish the butchery on the NYC public school system and union bust and privatize with the classy panache and verve that only they can bring to the task. Is this accidental? No! No. Who better than seasoned publishing professionals to skin you out of your own hide and sip a bellini while doing so?

    I can’t help feeling that pulling Patti Smith into this warm glowing circle of ritual niceties will have the effect of 1) potentially neutralizing her (how lovely to be awarded, petted, and praised), 2) perpetuating the lie that publishers and writers are all in this together (how bad can it be if they honored Patti Smith; live and let live, right?), and 3) occupying otherwise intelligent people’s time and attention, people like Jamey Gordon for instance, with an almost obscene focus on status-seeking, the fate of their own individual books, and their own personal writerly reputations.

    Maybe I’ve had Patti Smith on a pedestal, it’s possible, she’s pretty wonderful; but one can’t help feeling that this sort of thing is beneath her.

  8. Frances: I get and respect what you’re saying. Maybe the difference between us is that I consider gestures like last night to be just as positive as the ones coming from such brave figures as Bhairavi Desai, who are very much in the trenches. Let me tell you something. The spirit last night — predicated on people who love books having a good time — was so positive that I ended up having a long chat with someone who I’ve written extremely disparagingly on these pages. I saw this gentleman across the dance floor and decided to cross the threshold, shake my ass off to Jay-Z, and (against protests from pals insisting that this could end up disastrously) see if this gentleman could also have a good time.

    And you know what? After some silly banter over whether or not Jay-Z was danceable (I insisted that he was), we had a very civil conversation. I asked about him. He asked about me. I told him that I liked what he had done in the last year. And for about fifteen minutes, the bad blood between us was forgotten. That wouldn’t have happened if the atmosphere had been turgid or without hope. That wouldn’t have happened if people had been concerned with how politicians have fucked over this country. I’m not saying that we should surrender those latter concerns. I’m likely to remain a dedicated skeptic for the remainder of my life. But like Mariel Hemingway tells Woody Allen at the end of MANHATTAN, sometimes, you have to have a little faith in people.

  9. I really enjoyed reading your rejoinder, Ed. And I am truly glad there was a good party in NYC last night. I hope it can be extended outward, all the good feelings.

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