National Book Awards Finally Get It (Mostly) Right With Ta-Nehisi Coates’ and Robin Coste Lewis’ Well-Deserved Wins

“One question I found myself asking frequently,” Andy Borowitz told the crowd at the beginning of last night’s National Book Awards, “is, ‘What the fuck is the National Book Foundation?’” (It turns out there is no satisfactory answer.) After equating matriculation at Harvard with cooking meth, Borowitz kicked off the awards ceremony with a warning. “If you’re not in the mood to hear people talking about themselves,” he said, “you have come to the wrong place tonight.” That turned out to be not entirely true.

The Literarian Award (Borowitz wondered aloud, off the cuff, whether “literarian” is even a word) was awarded by Carmen Fariña to that great educator of online master classes in writing, James Patterson, presumably for writing “gross” books for middle school kids and donating books to sixth graders. Patterson, who said he was uncomfortable and looked it, called himself “the Big Mac at Cipriani,” in a quip that made me hungry. After confusing his prize for a lifetime achievement award, Patterson talked about his children’s imprint, “Jimmy.” He explained that the goal of the imprint is that when a child finishes a “Jimmy book,” he will immediately say, “Please give me another book.” It sounded like he was peddling crack to children.

Next, Jennifer Egan presented Don DeLillo with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters for his more than 45 years of sustained inquiry into human interiority and history — and the collision of the two. DeLillo asked that the National Book Foundation not show video of his award, but audio was streamed to listeners at home. When he first began to speak, it became clear that this speech would be about books, and that it would be a story.

“I’m the human in the story,” he said in a husky voice, reminding the audience indirectly that humanity has always been at stake in his novels. And memory, too. He began to list the books on his shelf at home. “The House of the Dead, Dostoevsky, Dell Books 1959, 50 cents.” A Signet Dylan Thomas with a lady in stockings on the cover, 35 cents. He mourned the loss of friends, writers. Gilbert Sorrentino and Peter Matthiessen and Edgar Doctorow. He soberly cited “the ectoplasmic drip of electronic devices.” To conclude his story, the writer who has gone deeper than any American in recent history into the subject of the writer’s own responsibility reminded us that he isn’t always one. “Here I’m not the writer at all,” he said, “I’m the grateful reader.”

In a category for which I admittedly read none of the books, YA Fiction winner Neal Shusterman, who won for Challenger Deep, called himself an “NBA star.”

The poetry shortlist was crowded this year, but the prize ultimately went to Robin Coste Lewis and her amazing debut, Voyage of the Sable Venus. The book’s central poem is a masterwork that sets out to reclaim the black female figure from its ruthless appropriation in the history of Western art. Her beautiful speech, which you can watch here, echoed the form of her book in its attention to metaphorical and historical detail. Reading her and hearing her speak, you get the feeling that you’re witnessing the emergence of a major new writer.

Though it was not “a lock,” as others have written — the National Book Awards have a history of oversight, like any award — the favorite in nonfiction, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, won the award. It did so deservedly, not only because it is an important work that will be read for the remainder of our lives, but also because it was the best book of the nominees. After thanking his editor, Coates located the core of his book in “the death, the murder, the killing of my friend Prince Carmen Jones.” He continued: “At the heart of our country is the notion that we are OK with the presumption that black people somehow have an angle, somehow have a predisposition toward criminality.” He made it clear, too, that the book is an announcement: “You won’t enroll me in this lie.”

Adam Johnson, the winner of the award for fiction, admitted that he did not believe he would win the prize. I still can’t believe it. His collection of short stories, Fortune Smiles, is solid but uninspiring. Of the shortlist, the prize should have gone to Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, the best of a heavily realist shortlist. But the prize really should have gone to Nell Zink’s Mislaid, a book that was bafflingly left off the shortlist. If anything, Zink would have given a funnier speech. The last time I heard her talk, she mentioned that she had just pulled down the pants of a “Nazi” at Union Square.

It was, all in all, a respectable night for literature in America. And, let’s face it, it came off better than last year’s ceremony.