Novelist and musician James McBride appeared genuinely stupefied as he reached to accept the National Book Award for Fiction from Charles McGrath, former editor of the New York Times Book Review, at the awards ceremony on November 20. After the shortlist reveal about a month before the awards, McBride was considered an underdog, pitted against better-known writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, George Saunders, Rachel Kushner, and Thomas Pynchon. A humble and gracious McBride, author of The Good Lord Bird (Riverhead), said of those esteemed authors, “I wouldn’t have felt bad [if one of them had received the award], because they are fine writers, but it sure is nice to get it.”
Winners in the three other categories of the 64th National Book Awards, presented by the National Book Foundation, were announced during the ceremony, which was held at Cipriani in downtown Manhattan. Cynthia Kadohata took home the Young People’s Literature prize for The Thing About Luck (S&S/Atheneum); Mary Szybist, author of Incarnadine (Graywolf), won for Poetry; and George Packer was the Nonfiction winner for The Unwinding (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
The event, attended by more than 700 members of the book publishing community and emceed by MSNBC’s Morning Joe cohost Mika Brzezinski, was chaired by Morgan Entrekin, Deborah Needleman, Lynn Nesbit, and Shelley Wanger.
Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison was on hand to present Maya Angelou with the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. “It’s a personal pleasure to honor a friend, an artist, and a legend,” said Morrison. “Easy reading is damn hard writing,” remarked Angelou. “I have been trying to tell the truth as far as I understand it, and you have honored me this evening, and I’m so grateful.” Angelou also thanked Bob Loomis, her longtime editor at Random House.
E.L. Doctorow received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, presented by longtime editor of the Nation, Victor Navasky. In accepting the award, Doctorow said, “Can we expect from the Internet infinite manifestations of human genius and human inadequacy? I think so.... Reading a book is the essence of interactivity, bringing sentences to life in the mind.”